Free Speech Becomes Newspeak

Issues of freedom of speech are all the rage in traditional and social media these days. As this is a political question, there is invariably a lot of subtext surrounding what is actually said. People say loudly that they are in favour of “free speech”, but what they mean by that can vary considerably, and it is wise to understand the issues before offering immediate support to such a call.

This particular post was prompted by a letter in The Observer on Saturday (it is dated Sunday, but it went online on Saturday morning) in which a posse of the great and good decried what they view as a creeping atmosphere of censorship in British universities. This in turn led to lots of people getting very angry on social media, and people getting very upset as a result.

Much of this involves the issue of “no-platforming”, by which student unions say that certain people whom they view as purveyors of hate speech and other objectionable views are not allowed to speak on union premises. This sort of thing has been common in student unions for decades — certainly since I was at university, which is so long ago that we called the study of dinosaurs agricultural economics. I am pretty sure that some of the people who signed that letter will have happily marched around their campuses chanting “no platform for racists and fascists”. The difference these days is that the people potentially being no-platformed are people with a track record of spreading hatred against trans people and sex workers.

It is worth noting that no-platforming is not censorship. It does not say that the people concerned have no right to their opinions, or to express those opinions, it simply says that they should not have the right to express those views on university premises. There are plenty of places where one can spread vile views about trans people and sex workers, the Guardian/Observer being one of them.

Also, of course, one’s access to platforms increases dramatically if one is white, middle-class, cisgendered, Oxbridge educated and so on. If you want to see how British society effectively no-platforms people of color I recommend that you follow @WritersOfColour on Twitter. They publish some really good articles.

Let’s now deal with the substance of the complaints. Sarah Brown has a comprehensive take-down of the various issues it raises here, but I’ll go through them briefly here.

The comedian, Kate Smurthwhaite, was not no-platformed. Her gig was cancelled because only 8 tickets had been sold.

Germaine Greer was not no-platformed at Cambridge. There was discussion between the Cambridge Union (which is a debating society, not the Student’s Union) and student feminists about whether she should be invited to speak. In the event she was. The students organized a rival event, which they have a perfect right to do. Greer used her platform to abuse trans people, which rather proves the point as to why the students didn’t want her to be invited in the first place.

Then there is Rupert Read, the Green Party candidate for Cambridge. He hasn’t been no-platformed either. What did happen is that a bunch of trans activists protested against his views, and some demanded that he be de-selected by the Greens. This happened because of views about trans people that he expressed publicly. I got told on Saturday night that these views were “not transphobic”, and yet what Read was effectively doing was calling for the repeal of the Gender Recognition Act.

The key point about the GRA is that it gives (some) trans people the right to be legally recognized in our preferred gender. Read’s position was that we should not have that right, and that “women” (a group he clearly felt not to include me) should have the right to exclude trans women from female-only spaces if they so wished, specifically bathrooms. How that can be construed as not transphobic is beyond me.

Support for trans people has long been a prominent feature of Green politics, and to see one of their candidates expressing firmly anti-trans views was very worrying. What happened with Read is that the leadership of the Greens took him aside and explained that what he was saying was against party policy. He has since apologized and retracted his remarks. If that is censorship, then so is all party politics. Suggesting, as the Observer letter does, that trans people should not be allowed to challenge political parties on their support for issues directly pertaining to us is very worrying and deeply undemocratic.

Of course there has long been a view amongst prominent left-wing activists that they have fulfilled their moral obligation to trans people by allowing us to dress as we please and have medical assistance to look the way we want. They will then insist that this doesn’t mean that trans women are “really” women, or that trans men exist, and that holding such views does not make them in any way transphobic. My opinion of such sophistry is not printable. We have not forgotten that the one piece of UK legislation that makes discrimination against trans people legal was authored by the Labour Party.

The only actual case of no-platforming I know of involving the people mentioned by the letter is a single incident in which Julie Bindel was banned from speaking at Sheffield University. This is hardly a tidal wave of totalitarianism, deserving of a mass letter to the national media.

Of course the Sheffield students are perfectly within their rights to deny Bindel a platform if they wish. Student politics is not a dictatorship, and if the actual student body disagrees they can vote the current leadership out. Nor has Bindel been prevented from holding a meeting elsewhere in Sheffield, or writing about the situation in national newspapers, who seem only to keen to pay her for her opinions, no matter how vile they are.

I don’t know why Sheffield decided to deny Bindel a platform, but I suspect that it is something to do with her support for “reparative therapy” for trans people — the sort of psychological bullying that caused Leelah Alcorn to take her own life. The letter, very disingenuously, says that none of the people no-platformed have ever advocated violence against trans people. The only one of those people that was actually no-platformed is someone who has indeed advocated grossly inhuman treatment of trans people. I understand that some of those mentioned advocate things that are deeply dangerous to sex workers as well.

To understand why the letter unleashed a Twitter storm you also have to understand the subtext that it contains, and why trans people will have seen it as saying much more than it actually did.

The point here is that trans activists are for the most part fed up of being asked to debate our right to exist, our right to be considered sane, our right not to be labelled “rapists” simply because we are trans women, and our right not to have to respond to accusations that we are can never be “real” women because our vaginas are too smelly (the Jeffreys position) or not smelly enough (the Greer position). Frankly we have better things to do with our lives.

Nevertheless, people do love a good bust-up. We don’t throw people to the lions any more, but we do what are known as “ambush debates”. What happens here is that you invite someone from a minority group along to talk about their experiences, and when they get there they discover that they will be expected to “debate” against someone who hates people like them, and that they will have to spend the entire “debate” responding to lies and insults from the professional hater.

Of course if you decline to be part of such a “debate” then the people organizing it will probably cancel, because they will be deprived of their entertainment. Trans people have discovered that if you use this tactic, and the event is indeed cancelled, then we will be accused of having “no-platformed” or “censored” the person lined up to insult us. This happened to Sarah Brown when she declined to be on a panel with Julie Bindel (something which turned into an appalling example of real world as well as online bullying of Sarah); and it happened to Paris Lees when she declined to be on a Newsnight “debate”.

So when someone says that they are against “no-platforming”, what trans people tend to hear is that they are in favor of having us put in metaphorical stocks while someone like Bindel or Greer throws insults at us. To the trans community, saying that you are against “no-platforming” comes across in the same way as saying that you are concerned about ethics in games journalism.

Next up there is the way that Twitter storms work. Soon after the whole thing blew up I was starting to hear stories that trans activists had unleashed a storm of hate messages against those who had signed the letter, and that this somehow proved what awful creatures trans people are.

It doesn’t work like that.

Twitter is an ideal vehicle for spontaneous mass protest by people normally denied a voice. You don’t have to organize a Twitter storm, and unless you have vastly more followers than any trans activist you probably can’t. They happen quite naturally, because lots of people have access. I have no idea who was the first person to tweet about that letter, but it is entirely likely that it was just the first trans person to look at the Guardian website that day. I heard about it from some young trans people I follow. They are not particularly activists, but they do get angry. One of them, I know, has been thrown out of her family home by her parents because she is trans. People like that get angry easily.

Once a storm gets going, of course, everyone joins in. I’m sure that a few trans activists will have said some fairly vile things. But our cause will have been adopted by people with a grudge against some of the people who signed the letter, by people doing it “for the lols”, and by sock-puppet accounts set up by the TERFS for the purpose of discrediting us. That’s the way that Twitter works.

In addition, prominent trans activists will have been targeted with abusive tweets. That too is part of the way Twitter works. But apparently that doesn’t matter, because it is only the feelings of white, middle-class media celebrities that are important.

The solution to all of this is not to blame the minority group that is seen to be sending abusive tweets, but to demand that Twitter become better at dealing with abuse. And in the meantime to use the “block” button.

Social media has made modern politics rather complicated to navigate. I can quite understand how some older people have difficulty with it. However, it is part of the way we live these days. If you want to carry on having a political voice, you have to understand it. And if you are going to sign up to a high profile statement that is deeply critical of a minority group, you have to understand what that statement is saying.

I don’t expect that everyone who signed that letter in the Observer will be aware of this subtlety, and indeed there has been some suggestion that what they were asked to sign is very different from what finally appeared in the paper. So hopefully some of them will be thinking, not just about how they have been abused online, but how they have been used, and why.