I was truly disturbed this weekend: not so much by the letter about “free speech” as by the response to it and then, in turn, the inevitable response to the response. It set off a train of thoughts and fears, not all entirely connected, not all likely to be entirely popular.
Let’s start with the obvious. I have worked over decades with Peter Tatchell. He is not a transphobe. I have not had the same privilege in respect of Mary Beard, but i really don’t think she is one either. And whether they should or should not have signed a letter that mostly does not talk about trans issues, it is out of order to jump to big conclusions about individuals on the basis of a one-off act, no matter how apparently wrong.
If you’re an activist or a public figure – or both – you are regularly asked to support this or that cause. Sometimes you get it wrong. I know i have: i can’t believe there is a single long-in-the-tooth activist who hasn’t.
And sometimes when you get it wrong, you get defensive. None of this remotely illustrates “what people really think”.
Communication and Allies
There is a major problem with moving so quickly to DefCon 1, unleashing the Twitter equivalent of mutual assured destruction, and tis this: it absolutely puts an end to any possibility of debate and discussion. I am interested in what Tatchell and Beard have to say on things – and i will continue to be so long after this particular spat has died down. Whisper it low, but i can foresee events at which i will share a platform with one of them.
Too, there are things that need to be said to them. The sort of “more in sorrow than anger” response blogged by Natacha Kennedy, that attempts to engage them in dialogue. The latter – talking to people who are not naturally your enemies and exploring and seeking to educate – is important.
It is also important to talk with people who sometimes take views that are opposed to yours. Because they can also be your allies. I think Suzanne Moore was wrong to question trans focus on trans deaths: what could be more relevant to trans people? Yet i will not reject those, like her, like Julie Bindel, like Bea Campbell, who have a track record of working and campaigning over decades on over-arching issues such as Violence Against Women, poverty and women’s education.
Those are not trivial issues and, if one wishes to support campaigns in those areas, then it is near inevitable that one will at some point find oneself working with people not wholly in agreement.
At a personal level, i was quite touched this morning by an exchange with one feminist academic – a Professor (you know who you are) – whose views on certain issues i do not support. But on rape, she has done more than most people i know to assist in making the world a safer place for women and on that issue i will support her to the hilt. More: i think she is a totally “good thing”. End of.
Speech vs. Space
This free speech/no platforming debate is a complicated one. A lot of people seem to be calling “no platforming” things that probably AREN’T no platforming. Julie Bindel has been no platformed and since i have spent the last 30+ years of my life opposing no platforming (OK…i think i first spoke against it publicly in 1978!), i see no reason to change my views just because it’s her.
I don’t know the ins and outs of events surrounding Kate Smurthwaite and Rupert Read to declare with any confidence WHAT happened to them. That’s my journalistic caution coming into play: i haven’t spoken to any of the participants in those episodes directly. Since i have not done that, i know enough to know that alternative narratives exist – but not to know which i quite believe.
Still, there are things that are not “no platforming”: blockbots, not inviting people to speak, refusal to share a platform with people and even demonstrating against people. When it comes to speech, i do not object to these which are essentially speech vs. speech: individuals exercising their right to speak against people speaking things they do not agree with.
Where it becomes no platforming – and where i cease to agree – is where an individual is outright banned from speaking, no matter where, no matter what by some body.
Quite separate from that are questions of space. If one individual follows another around the street megaphoning their dislike in such a way that the latter cannot go out, let alone do their shopping, then that is rightly regarded by the law as interference in freedom. It’s harassment with a very real impact on an individual’s life.
Likewise, if a mob gathers to shout at an individual. We would expect the police to disperse the mob – and rightly so.
Ditto twitter and various online SPACES, where i have long been convinced that the current debate is wrongly framed – using the language of the 19th century as opposed to that of the 21st. These are spaces – virtual ones, perhaps – but spaces nonetheless…and hounding an individual off such spaces is simply wrong.
The problem perhaps, is that when Twitter is in full voice, few individuals stop to consider the impact their own contribution makes. Yet were they out on the street, they would understand. If they disagree profoundly with someone, they have a choice: to join the chorus of baying disapproval. Or to stand back, understand the oppressiveness of the moment and to make their point more quietly, later.
Security and the real threat
Which brings me round to the biggest and latest and realest threat to free speech. Whatever you think of the instances detailed in THAT letter, the one that gives me greatest pause for thought is the suggestion that in one case an event was questioned because “security”. There was, to my knowledge, no major credible threat – just a nebulous fear of what might happen which then became a plank in the argument for speech not happening.
Place this in context. Warwick University students violently stopped from demonstrating because of fears for “security”. Two major political events in London – the Million Women Rise march and a demo by the Campaign Against Climate Change – are likely not to happen in the next months. Why? Because they must now be policed and have a risk assessment in place and loads of other fol-de-rol which, if the police refuse to supply them, as appears to be the case, they cannot happen.
In the UK, we are subtle. Not for us blanket bans on troublesome agitators and demonstrations organised by same. Instead, we demand that organisers organise responsibly and, while we’re at it, make organisers responsible for any litter resulting and hey presto! Public dissent is quietly tuned down without ever reaching for awkward words like censorship or ban. Because, of course, its all about Health and Safety, innit?
And we should all be very careful indeed about giving, through our own disagreements, any further ammunition to authorities to stop us from speaking.