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On Julie Burchill, hatred, and a massive crisis of empathy

Update 2020: this post was written long ago, before I understood how Julie Burchill’s views really fed into the toxic debate on trans rights. I would not write the same thing today. 

What causes hate? Loads of situational things, of course. You might hate someone because they slept with your partner, because they blew up your car or used up the last bit of milk in the fridge and failed to replace it.

On a more significant and terrifying level you might hate someone because they’re different: blacker, gayer, differently-gendered, or because there’s some other quality about them that you just can’t get your head around. They’re different, and they do things differently to you and they’re swanning around this world just refusing to even make an effort to be a little bit the same as you, to fit in. How dare they.

At the root of it I think the vast majority of this hatred is caused by a failure to understand – to actually try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes and empathise with their situation. We’re suffering a massive fuckoff crisis of empathy, and it’s causing us to rip each other to shreds.

Let’s talk about privilege

I’m pretty bloody privileged: I’m a white, middle-class British girl with a job and a flat and shoes and a fridge full of Cadbury’s Twirl bites and at least four real-life friends. I’ve grown up with a family who are fucking spectacular and supportive and I’m more than aware that the shelter of my background and upbringing means I’ll never fully understand the troubles that other people, who haven’t been born with all the breaks I have, go through.

But I can try, yeah? I can give it a fucking go. I can listen to people’s stories and experiences and I can frown at the people who shout them down and I can try – try – to empathise. I may not be able to fully comprehend, because of my privilege. But I can listen, and I can try.

Let’s talk about words

I once wrote a blog post about female urinals that included the line ‘women don’t have penises’. As soon as I tweeted it someone tweeted back saying ‘hey, how about you cut out the nasty transphobia in your second paragraph, yeah?’

My reaction was a stunned, gobsmacked, horrified ‘what the fuck?!’ I re-read the blog and I couldn’t see anything that would lead people to think that I was phobic or hateful towards transgendered people. So you know what I did? Rather than call her a prick, or tell her to fuck off and leave me alone, I asked what she meant.

She explained: ‘some women, you know, do have penises. Gender vs sex.’ That made sense, so I asked her what I should change it to and she suggested ‘most women don’t have penises.’ The change wasn’t exactly a fucking revolution, but it made this person, and potentially others, a bit more comfortable with what I was writing, and also made me a bit more careful about the language I used from then on. I’m not asking for a medal, by the way – this is quite literally the least I can do to not be a dick.

In return, though, when I’d changed the piece, the lady in question apologised. Not for asking me to change it, but for her initial comment that had made it sound like I did it deliberately. Saying (and I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t have the tweet to hand) ‘sorry, I just see this stuff all the time, appreciate you changing it and realise you didn’t do it on purpose.’

And, pathetic though I sound, that made my sodding day. Her recognition that I’m not deliberately a bastard, just a clumsy arse, meant a lot.

Let’s talk about Julie Burchill

Earlier this week Suzanne Moore wrote an article that included an insensitive comment about ‘Brazilian transsexuals.’ Then some people picked her up on it. Then some more people hounded her for it. She defended her comments. They asked her to apologise. She left Twitter. Then professional controversialist Julie Burchill waded in with something so hateful that it made me wonder why the fuck any of us even bothers getting out of bed in the morning.

There are failures of empathy going on all over the place here – Moore’s initial lack of empathy and understanding for trans women who, you know, have enough shit to deal with without being casually mocked in the New Statesman. When she was picked up on her comments by people who tried to engage, and explain exactly what was wrong with the original comment, she failed to understand why they might be justifiably angry. Later on, some more vocal tweeters joined in, then seemed surprised that Moore might be upset at having had quite terrifying abuse hurled at her. Finally, Julie Burchill rounded the whole episode off neatly by demonstrating where a complete lack of empathy ultimately leads: to hatred.

Let’s just fucking talk, OK?

Privileged or not, we all have the capacity to understand and to try and empathise. But we cannot do that if we cannot talk to each other, and listen to what others have to say.

Sometimes I’ll say things you disagree with. Sometimes I’ll use words you don’t like. Sometimes (and this may be one of those times) you’ll want to hurl your laptop out of the window in frustration at the way I have callously dismissed or ignored something that’s precious to you.

But I promise you this: I will never deliberately say hateful, horrible things that ignore my privilege and make life harder for you. I will always try to empathise and – if you correct me – I’ll try to clarify what I’m saying, or apologise if I’m wrong. If you tell me about my mistakes I can correct and clarify. If you call me a hateful psycho bitch-whore, I’ll never fucking learn.

I’m just a girl, standing in front of an angry internet, asking you all to be a bit more understanding. That goes for the writers as well as the commenters and all of the people who retweet us and keep us afloat. Because as soon as we lose that capacity to understand, to try and empathise with other people’s feelings and troubles and mistakes, we’ll all turn into Julie fucking Burchill.



  • Jane says:

    What a thoughtful, inspiring message. Thankyou

  • Lisa says:

    Great piece. Though on the subject of being “a clumsy moron”: You do realise that “moron” is disablist, right?

    • Girl on the net says:

      Is it? Bollocks, that’s a pretty significant fail then. I’ll change it to ‘arse’ – a suitable all-round safe swear.

      • Helen says:

        Fraid so. It used to be used to categorise a particular section of society. If I remember rightly it was adults with a mental capacity equivalent of an 8-12 year old. It is actually an interesting word though. It means ‘blunt’. An oxymoron is a ‘sharp-blunt’ i.e. two contrasting things put together.
        ‘Idiot’ used to mean ‘someone who does not partake in democracy’. During the 19th and early 20th centuries it too was used to categorise a particular set of people who might now be described as learning disabled.
        ‘Cretin’ is also out since cretinism is actually a type of hypothyroidism and a rather nasty, though now treatable condition. One of the symptoms is a slowness of thought, which is why the meaning got hijacked. I think you’re safe with ‘arse’.
        Lovely article btw. I think we all have our prejudices. The important thing is that we recognise them, deal with them and try to combat them within ourselves as well as in others. And we can at least be dignified in doing so, rather than shriek about lopping off body parts.

  • Probably one of the most eloquent uses of the F bomb I have read.
    I hold that empathy is one of the most undervalued human abilities of them all. It is what can cool the fires of rage, the solution to the unsolvable dispute, and the glue that binds together a cosmopolitan community. It stops wars, causes peace and feeds equity between people of all nations, genders and beliefs.
    Well written blog and worth retweeting the link.
    Thank You

    Chris Kneipp
    Author and Part Time Lunatic.

  • Richard says:

    “I’m not deliberately a bastard, just a clumsy moron” is a nugget of pure gold. Thank you!

  • Robyn says:

    *applause* without doubt one of the best things I’ve read on this whole sorry subject.

    I was dismayed by the commenter who said it was disablist to use the word moron. Literalists who regard themselves as the language police and pounce on anyone who gets a word wrong are not helping anyone.

    For the record, the dictionary definition of moron is ‘a stupid person’ which is exactly what you meant. As a secondary meaning, some dictionaries note that moron WAS a psychological term referring to mental retardation, but that it’s no longer in use. So you were being pulled up for, most likely, not knowing that there was once a different meaning for a word that is used exactly as you used it thousands of times every day.

    When Moore used the phrase ‘Brazilian transexual’ she used it to evoke an image: tall, leggy, gorgeous, slim-hipped, big breasts & hair. Unachievable for most people. That’s how it was understood by most people. Not an attack, but an image. That’s how writers use words. All the language police achieved by attacking her on that phrase, was to whip up division within a community that, on the whole, is inclined to be supportive of transexuals. I find it hard to believe that these pious fools never slip up: they cannot possibly know all the connotations of language for all cultures. But they extend no empathy to their targets, too keen to show off their own perceived superiority. A little bit more humility and understanding could go a long way.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thanks – v glad you liked the blog!

      To your point on language, I see your point that it’s possible to sometimes go overboard and question our words without context, but not sure that’s true in this case. Part of the point about empathy is to encourage people to consider “do I actually *need* this word, if it’s offensive to some?” I think writers need to be more understanding about this.

      • Helen says:

        Also, I took the point about ‘moron’ being disablist as a little tongue in cheek – my reply to it was as well. Not that I intended to cause any offence to anyone. Rather it’s just extending an awareness that words do matter. However, you cannot avoid offending some of the people some of the time. The best thing you can do is have an adult discussion about what caused the offence and listen to each other.

        • Owen Blacker says:

          Well put, Helen. I too was initially cautious on reading your earlier comment, for similar reasons to Robyn. But I can completely see your point, now you’ve explained it in a little more detail.

          An excellent piece *and* thoughtful, useful comments. Who knew such a thing was still even possible? :-)

    • Robin says:

      “When Moore used the phrase ‘Brazilian transexual’ she used it to evoke an image: tall, leggy, gorgeous, slim-hipped, big breasts & hair. Unachievable for most people”

      It also revealed something very telling that a lot of people – non-trans people, mostly – are not noticing or saying.

      That in Suzanne Moore’s head (and the heads of many other people) the word “transsexual” means Male-to-Female transsexual, trans woman.

      It doesn’t. It means Transsexual person – person being a non-gendered wor can be any sex. It can *gasp* mean trans men!

      People like Moore seem absolutely fixated on policing what womanness is, and how other people may or may not be woman enough. To the extent that they don’t even think transsexuality can work the other way too. This obsession with other women in itself is incredibly sexist.

      • Judi Sutherland says:

        Moore, fixating much? Really? Do you really think Moore thought that carefully about the phrase she used? I doubt it. Like girlonthenet said, not a bastard (pejorative word for people whose parents weren’t married) just a moron (obscure medical term whose original usage has passed into history). We could all be offended by almost anything, but we mostly have better things to do.

  • Caron says:

    A post to restore faith in what the internet can do – it can spread understanding and empathy as well as hatred and bile.

    I tried to do the same thing yesterday on my blog, but not as well.

  • Jo Hall says:

    Well said, thank you!

  • JenClone says:

    Awesome post, thank you.

    We need to get better at talking to people when they’ve fucked up and used the wrong words. It’s so easily done, and usually completely innocent. It’s precisely the terrifying shouty response that I’ve seen people get for using the *wrong* words/phrases that stops me from properly engaging in most of these discussions. So thanks for sticking your neck out and basically saying EXACTLY what I would have said if I wasn’t a massive coward.

  • fatgayvegan says:

    Thank you for such a concise and entertaining read. I love your point (actually in the comments) that people should ask themselves “Do I need this word?”. It doesn’t take too much effort to reconsider language but can do so much for inclusion.

  • Andy says:

    Brilliant. Well written, should be a guide to how to behave that we all take heed of.

  • Could not love this piece any more if I tried. There’s been so much nonsense written about this row, and much more heat than light generated. This is a lovely ray of light.

    Oh, and I too am a privileged middle-class woman with chocolate in the fridge, and every day I try to imagine what life would be like without such fortune. I think empathy is, at heart, just good manners.

  • Jess Woo says:

    Awesome, well said. As someone from the school of “why can’t we all just get along”,


    … is a credo I’d absolutely adopt.

  • Jess Woo says:

    Sorry, the bit between <> was supposed to be this bit:

    “I will never deliberately say hateful, horrible things that ignore my privilege and make life harder for you. I will always try to empathise and – if you correct me – I’ll try to clarify what I’m saying, or apologise if I’m wrong. If you tell me about my mistakes I can correct and clarify.”

    Html fail on my part!

  • Karen Drury says:

    Thank you, great post. As well as empathy, perhaps if people trusted others to make comments with a good heart – they’d perhaps have an inkling that it was indeed clumsiness rather than cruelty. Sadly, it looks like here, every comment instead of bringing people closer in understanding has driven them to take more and more extreme views. But a great does of sanity from your post.

  • Ruth Simons says:

    What a lucid and compassionate piece. I am with you. It’s so easy to laugh along with the ‘Political Correctness gone mad’ brigade. But why should we applaud unthinking unkindness. What is so bad about us all taking a little time to think before we speak. We all accept that it is unacceptable to be racist or discriminate against people with disabilities but surely all people have a right not to be crushed and hurt by others. Who are we to decide that some people matter more than others and some peoples issues are more or less important. Thank you for writing this.

  • Joe says:

    Great article. Honest dialogue always improves the situation, but getting it from both sides is rarely easy. Loved the Nottingham Hill reference.

  • Pete says:

    Could someone make Julie Burchill watch this video, and better still, invite Sass to London for an Interview, even if only to educate Ms Burchill. Sass Rogando Sasot is studying at the Hague in The Netherlands.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thank you for posting that – bloody good video, and incredibly eloquent speech.

      “Even though the truth of human diversity is so evident and clear to us, we choose to hang on to our current beliefs about gender. ”


  • Dumb Domme says:

    Love this: “And, pathetic though I sound, that made my sodding day. Her recognition that I’m not deliberately a bastard, just a clumsy arse, meant a lot.”

    It does mean a lot, especially for those of us who are trying to be sensitive, but unintentionally prone to fucking up. Good on you for changing the language, and good on her for apologizing and explaining.

  • Cath says:

    Brilliant, thank you for this! :)

  • ds says:

    I hate to piss on the general atmosphere of bonhomie and love but, much as I’d love to share in it, I don’t think that we’ll be seeing an empathic upswing any time soon. The increasing fragmentation of our lives and the media we use to navigate it, far from encouraging empathy, seems to actively spur most people to new nadirs of solipsism. Almost every aspect of popular culture is designed to be antagonistic and atomised. We prize the “individual” and the “personalised” and seem to discard the collective and the shared, the very bases of empathy. We’ve lost a little bit of our souls.

    Why? Because it makes money for someone, that’s why. And it’s exactly why Julie Burchill is writing for the Observer. They’re paying her (so she’s happy) because they think advertisers will pay them for the eyeballs she attracts. The Observer have apologised, not because she has been hideously offensive (who’d have believed that of JB, eh kids?) but because offended readers don’t always buy newspapers. And God knows the Observer can’t afford to lose readers right now.

    It’s not just the Internet, it’s our whole culture that is becoming increasingly and worryingly atavistic and spiteful. And we all conspire to some degree or another. So we can try to empathise and try to be reasonable and fair, simply because we should, but we will be fighting an ever harder battle to be heard over the clamour of the ever more self-obsessed mob.

    Sorry to cast such a downer.

  • Precision of language is incredibly taxing for a writer, but your resolution to try shows compassion, dedication, and creativity. Constructive criticism is always helpful, and I always hope to hear that rather than hate or accusations.
    Love this post.

  • Girl on the net says:

    ds – Ouch, well that’s properly ruined my day =p

    I get what you’re saying, and I know that there are a lot of things that push us towards being more self-centred. But honestly? I genuinely don’t recognise this dystopian picture. Sure, so much of what we consume every day is driven by money: we’re no longer just friendly to people in the street as we might have been 100 years ago, and our interactions are more likely to take place in places that are easy to monetise, therefore money is going to play a huge factor in the things we discuss. Were the Observer run for fun rather than cash, we may well not have seen Burchill’s article at all.

    However, do we really prioritise the ‘personalised’ over the ‘shared’? Are we going to become so self-centred that we implode in a shower of bitterness? I doubt it. Yes, new ways of communicating are used often for selfish reasons (*cough cough* self promoting bloggers on Twitter *cough cough*) but humans are incredibly adaptive, and we have a strong tendency towards compassion. Evolution has taught us to treat people who are like us well – it’s a survival tactic – and if there’s one thing that’s stunning about the media we use to navigate our lives it’s that it’s made it way easier for us to learn about other people. The more we learn, the more we empathise.

    If you compare social attitudes over the last 50 years or so, it looks to me as if our society is growing more liberal, not less. More understanding of people who are different. It’s difficult to get a racist word in edgeways these days without some uppity ‘decent human being’ shooting you down.

    Perhaps I am a ridiculously optimistic old twat, but I think that although there are some significant challenges posed by our quicker-better-clickier communication channels (not least of which is, as you say, the constant drive for money or – euggh – ‘engagement’) we, as a species, are generally pretty good at working together. And ultimately, the reason we’re on these channels in the first place is because we are drawn towards other humans – Twitter would be a big fuckoff flop if we weren’t. Although we’re communicating differently (bite-sized chunks interspersed with marketing messages), I think one of the main appeals of this type of communication is that it is a shared experience, and an experience shared far more broadly than the conversation in the marketplace 100 years ago.

    Hope that makes sense and doesn’t just sound painfully sentimental. I’m off to hug a tree.

    • ds says:

      Well, I did say I’d like to share in an atmosphere of bonhomie, so I’m not *entirely* misanthropic. I hope there’s some mitigation there, at least.

      It’s true that there are elements of our culture that are more empathic but even some of our those interactions are moving away from that – look at the way social media is looking at gamification – making human interaction a competition. Humans are tribal, and while we do have the need to share and work with others, there’s also an awful lot of self-preening and posturing going on. There also seems to be that “Diana Effect”: the need to show just how much one can empathise, way beyond the boundary of common sense, or even sanity

      I really hope that our culture is reaching a tipping point, where the remorseless hold of individualism is examined for the rather hollow experience it can sometimes be, and that we can get back some of that commonality again. But we also have to get over the hurdle of thinking that we have a right to not be offended. And for some to stop rather piously taking offence on behalf of others who are not offended. There is sometimes a conspicuous need in some to demonstrate just how compassionate* they are. It shouldn’t be that hard should it, to let people live their own lives without reproach, as long as they don’t hurt others?

      * when I say “compassionate”, I mean “be a sanctimonious cack-satchel”, really

  • Mr Archer says:

    Wow. The Guardian also published that article on their website, too. Wow. In regards to the article, Julie Burchill clearly wrote it PISSED OFF. However, the article was fucking brutal, and did not need to go so far to make that point. That is what happens when you let an Internet beef get outta control. She was well out of order, and should be made to apologise.

    Regarding transexuality, it’s something I refuse to comment on, as a man who is comfortable and happy with his cock, can never see things truly from their perspective without being judgmental.

    I also think Suzanne’s comment was not all that bad, and people need to stop being so overtly sensitive. Too many times, especially over the Internet, a slight comment can be blown way out of proportion. Look at the DmC Hair “controversy” to see what i am talking about…

  • Journojulz says:

    I think we all need to be a bit more relaxed and consider context.

    Moore’s comment was flippant at worst, trying to find a memorable way of describing the sheer unrealistic media image of a female body shape that has some secondary female sexual characeristics (breasts) and not others (fat deposits and a pelvis you can push a baby through).

    If you found it offensive, there is no need to get angry about it, state your objection and just move on. There are people all over the net and elsewhere trying to campaign for all kids of issues, and journalists paid more than a pound a word looking for the oxygen of publicity.

    We may as well just calm down about things.

  • Pango says:

    I missed the Burchill shitstorm at the time (because babies 😱) but have just seen your 2020 addendum. So I’m curious, how would you write things differently now?

    • Girl on the net says:

      That would take a loooong time! But broadly, I think I was very much ‘oh let’s not have a big fight over it, let’s be understanding to ppl who don’t understand the ins and outs of trans rights’ whereas today I’d be much more of the opinion that if you don’t get it, it’s your responsibility to listen to trans people and understand the problems they face rather than opining on something that will not affect you but may have a devastating effect on those around you. More recent post on trans rights more broadly: The main issue I have with this blog post today is that I think I was trying to be middle-ground diplomatic, and on an issue like human rights being ‘middle-ground diplomatic’ is essentially akin to upholding the status quo – and the status quo is v harmful for trans ppl in the UK.

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