A response to Mary Beard

Yesterday an open letter was published by the Observer, composed by Beatrix Campbell, and signed by a substantial number of academics, activists, feminists and others.  http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2015/feb/14/letters-censorship  Although a number of points are made in the letter, the central claim is that there has been a recent trend of restriction of freedom of speech at our universities.

Many people have written responses of varying length to this letter (mine is copied on this site), from articulate criticisms of the individual points to in a few cases, I am sad to say, more personal harassment of some of the signatories (more on this later).  Despite the existence of the latter, the vast majority of what I have read is polite, coherent and well reasoned.  The essence of these is that, firstly, some of the claims made by the letter are manifestly false, and secondly, that the broader situation described is at best misleading of the actual facts.

I shall resist the temptation to elaborate on the content of the original letter more that is necessary, both for reasons of the volume of other responses and because there are others far more qualified than I to speak on specific matters of content.  However I do want to focus on one particular detail of the ever-expanding furore.  One of the signatories who has received the most attention is Mary Beard.  I think that there are a good number of reasons for this: her general popularity and articulate manner, the fact that as a woman of a certain age she elicits more sympathy than certain others, that she has previously been the noted target of online abuse, and that she has not – to the best of my knowledge – been tarnished by direct claims of trans- and whore-phobia (matters of association being considerably more complex to unpick).  As a result, various of the responses to the original letter have identified Prof Beard as the reasonable person to whom their objections can be directed.

Professor Beard has now provided her own thoughts, on her website, and it is on these that I would like to make a few comments.  http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/2015/02/no-platforming-1.html  I’m going to address them personally to Prof Beard.

A response to a response to a response…

1.  You state that you have a long-held view that ‘no-platforming’ unpopular views is counter-productive.  While I understand the general position, this rather depends upon what is meant by ‘unpopular’.  There are, of course, things that people don’t want to hear but really need to (generally anything critical of themselves and their beliefs).  Then again there are those who simply preach hate, and who we do not stand to gain anything from hearing.

You acknowledge that we all draw a line somewhere on the matter of free speech, but this doesn’t mean that we need to be relativist about the matter: some people take permissiveness to an extreme level, while others will attempt to shut down anything outside their comfort zone, and both of these positions are wrong.  There is room for debate over the middle ground, but the essence of the disagreement between you and various of my co-correspondents is that we think that at least some of the examples cited in the open letter fall into the actively harmful beyond any redeeming quality category.

(the most egregious example being the various transphobes.  These people are not trying to negotiate with trans* people about the niceties and etiquette of trans*/cis daily life.  They are arguing that trans* people should not exist.  You cannot debate with somebody who refuses to acknowledge your essential nature, let alone your right to speak on related matters)

2.  You acknowledge that the Smurthwaite business may not be ‘as it has widely been reported’.  This is rather disingenuous.  There has been a sustained campaign of misinformation – beginning with Smurthwaite herself – and before you signed a letter like this, you should have made the effort to acquaint yourself with the basics.  Various people at Goldsmiths have published their view of the matter online, since they’ve not been permitted a national media platform, and it is pretty clear that Kate Smurthwaite exaggerated the situation, at the very least.

3.  You observe that Julie Bindel has been no-platformed by the NUS for several years.  I am afraid that you are mistaken, albeit to a lesser degree, on this matter too.  The LGBT campaign has done so, but not the wider NUS.  I mention this only to highlight the importance of accuracy in your response.  More pertinently it is odd that you fail to acknowledge (or were unaware) that Bindel herself is a keen advocate of ‘no-platforming’.  She and her affiliated organisations commonly refuse to allow trans* activists or active sex workers to speak.  She recently publish a ‘press pack’ for journalists that advised them against speaking to grass-roots sex workers organisations on the spurious grounds that they are a mouthpiece for pimps and the sex industry.  More generally, many feminist conferences fail to provide a platform for either trans* or sex work activists, despite the fact that matters of direct concern to them are commonly debated.  It has become commonplace to see panels on sex work lacking a sex worker, despite the fact that sex worker-led organisations routinely put members forward for these.

4. You appear confused, rather embarrassingly, about the notion of democracy (modern, of course, I wouldn’t presume to inform you on the ancient varieties).  Of course democracy must always be more than simple majority rule, but to suggest that democratically reached decisions made by democratically elected groups (and I realise the uninspiring nature of student politics means that people are commonly elected unopposed, but that is another matter) are undemocratic is strange.  And that they should be externally overruled (and by who?  The faculty?  The vice-chancellor?  The government?) is just perverse.  Democracies get things *wrong*, but it’s not because they’re not democratic enough.

5. You observe the difficulties of signing alongside unconfirmed others.  I sympathise somewhat, but this is the nature of the open letter.  The whole premise is built upon the notion of a group of people coming together from different backgrounds, to express a shared opinion.  You cannot have your cake and eat it: you chose to sign alongside these people in order to make a point, so you can’t complain when some of them turn out to have views which you would not whole-hearted endorse.

6. Having noted the above, you do mention a number of people with whom you are unequivocally happy to share a platform.  You then go on to suggest that anyone disagreeing with them would be a real reactionary.  This is nice rhetoric, but rather overstates their credentials.  Caroline Criado-Perez, for example, may have led a few well-meaning campaigns, but also has a track record of (literally as well as figuratively – I have heard her on the radio) talking over WoC.

7. You observe you think there is something very weird going on if me and Peter Tatchell (never mind the other 130 people) are held up as the enemy of the SW and trans community when (whatever the micro arguments are) we are on the same damned side.  Oh if only things were so simple.  For a start it is perfectly possible for people on the same side to disagree on certain matters, just as it is possible for enemies to see eye to eye.  More concerningly, this line is itself a method for stifling debate.  The idea that one can’t criticise one’s allies is to ignore the temporary and pragmatic nature of alliance.  At the very least I think it is uncontroversial to observe that (white, cis) gay men have at times left behind the rest of their allies in the LGBT+ community.  And that mainstream feminism has a huge problem acknowledging the experience and expertise of WoC.  There are not two clearly defined sides here.

8. I am sorry that you were upset by the nature of the response to your signing of the letter.  And I think that we can all agree that the individual who messaged you sixty times in one hour is not helping either ‘side’.  But, as you acknowledge, this is nothing on the scale of what many people receive on account of their gender (or indeed other aspect of their identity).  Many of those who wrote back to you, or blogged or tweeted about the matter will expect to be the subject of abuse, threats, doxxing and the like on a daily basis.  And I am afraid that the actions of you and your co-signatories help to legitimise this.  By painting yourselves as the victims, you make those who disagree with you out to be the aggressors, when they are the ones who really lack a platform.

9. Your final point: you can see why a lot of women (and there is a gender issue here) might choose not to put their heads above the parapet, cant you?  It is true that women face being the target of abuse, and that the public arena is dominated by (white) men.  But the fact remains that white, middle-class cis women are still the second most privileged group on the planet.  I don’t want to seem uncharitable, but at least the abuse directed at this demographic gets acknowledged: I am thinking of the recent Guardian front page story ‘Twitter chief takes blame for failure to act on trolls’ (6th of Feb, I think, as for some reason I’m having trouble negotiating the archives), which was illustrated with the pictures of seven white women – including yourself – and Matt Lucas.

The remark also rather glosses over the fact that women can be the source as well as the target of the abuse.  If high-profile white women are afraid to speak because of the negative attention, harassment, and threats from (largely) men, just consider what is like for female sex workers, for example, who face not only that, but the added opprobrium of their fellow women.

Postscript

Many of the objections to ‘no-platforming’ pretend that it is a stand-alone form of action: a person is invited to speak, under pressure the organisation or society takes a vote, and the invitation is withdrawn.  The person has been ‘silenced’.  This is to take an entirely negative view of the process.  In actual fact, to take the earlier manifestation of the phenomenon, upon withdrawing an invitation to somebody of fascist sympathies, one would expect their place to be taken by a more liberal speaker, even a confirmed anti-fascist.  Similarly, when a campaign is formed against allowing a transphobe to take advantage of a prominent public platform, this will be in combination with a desire to allow actual trans* people to speak about their experiences.

The trouble with being opposed to no-platforming (as a matter of principle) is that it means that while one is openly supporting the right of anyone to be heard, it has the effect of degradation to a ‘state of nature’ where the loudest shout over everybody else.  If there is no active attempt to regulate balance and amplify certain voices, white men – already the receptacles of most public power – will continue to dominate discourse.  Below this will come the expected hierarchy: ‘respectable’ white women, and ‘articulate’ BME males (the above all being cis, of course), before anybody from a more oppressed background even gets a look in.  And this effect will be increased by the, already common, practice of allowing people from these preferred groups to speak for those in the tiers below.

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