On Freedom of Speech

There’s been a lot of bullshit talked about freedom of speech lately.  There’s been a lot of bullshit talked about freedom of speech since it became a concept.  But perhaps the most frustrating thing about the recent spate is that people are talking at cross-purposes, and generally agree on the basic principle, just not how and where it’s applied.  This is not an argument about whether there should be a free press or government monitoring of what people say.  As such, I shall try to be charitable towards those I disagree with, as I think they’re generally well-intentioned but mistaken in their apprehension, rather than malicious.  Or at least most of them: some are awful trolls and haters (I’m not sure if I like the word ‘haters’ in general use:most people don’t hate indiscriminately – they do it directedly and for reasons, good or bad – but it’s about right here).

First, some pedantry.  When people talk about freedom of speech, they mean a whole range of different things, from being able to express an opinion in (what they regard as) private, up to the maintenance of a free press.  And this is the root of much of the disagreement at present.  But when one is talking about freedom of speech as a formal right, it must refer to the state, and nothing more.  The right to speak freely is the right to not have your speech arbitrarily monitored, limited, or controlled by the government.  It doesn’t stop other people from ignoring you or shouting you down.  It doesn’t mean you get to speak in any particular place.  It doesn’t entitle you to say anything you want without consideration for the possible effects.  The classic example is shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded room, causing a stampede.  It certain doesn’t entitle you to a platform, or any other means of amplifying your voice over those of others.

This is not to say that many of these things aren’t desirable.  Those with something to say should be heard.  But that comes down to matters of opinion about who should be heard, and who ignored.  What isn’t helpful is people framing any suggestion that a certain individual doesn’t deserve a given platform as censorship.  Especially when that person has access to all sorts of alternatives.  Most people in the world have little outlet (and probably nothing before the advent of the web), so let’s not get distracted by a few high profile people encountering a little resistance at universities.

The limits of free speech

Look, in an ideal world, everybody would have a public voice.  This sort of thing – a blog – is a pretty good approximation.  Of course, most blog content might as well be shouted into a well.  A few friends and family might read it, but unless you hit something zeitgeisty, or have contacts, you have no expectation that it will reach many people.  The thing is that the ‘free speech is everything’ people aren’t focussed on the right to speak, so much as the right to be listened to.  I think they make two major oversights.

The first is in trumpetting a simple multiplicity of views.  The more ideas and opinions we hear, the better.  In an ideal world…maybe.  It’s certainly good to consider contrary opinions, even if they do only lead to us strengthening our own.  Debate is a fine thing.  But to suggest that ignoring any given person  – generally someone the arguer agrees with – is a mistake is itself folly.  There are simply too many voices in the world, and we are all necessarily selective.  You should certainly temper your Fox News with some BBC (and vice versa), but you cannot possibly listen to every single position.  So people are very rarely just saying ‘don’t listen to this person’; rather, they are saying that you should give time to someone else you maybe haven’t considered.  To give a specific example: when a group protested against Germaine Greer speaking at the Cambridge Union, they didn’t just argue that she shouldn’t be listened to (on the grounds of her attitude to, and treatment of, trans* people), but they offered their own event and speakers, Roz Kaveney & Sarah Brown, to provide an alternative.  Oddly, this has been presented by some as ‘no platforming’ despite the fact that both events went ahead.

The second error is in ignoring the fact that speech can have negative consequences.  It is odd that they present it as being neutral, ideas as if they are completely objective prior to their application, when they are so determined as to the good that can be done.  If the world can be changed for the better by a speech, it can just as well be made worse.  We know that some things can be harmful if said in the wrong place and time.  The aforementioned shout of ‘fire’.  The use of abusive language directed at certain people.  This is all about context: a word is neutral when spoken in a vacuum; it is not in any circumstance where it has meaning.

The thing is that virtually all of those calling for more free speech know this.  I doubt many of them want to give neo-Nazis an opportunity to recruit at our institutions of learning (because even *wrong* words have power).  I’m sure they all repudiate hate speech.  But then who decides what hate speech is?  Denial of a genocide?  The suggestion that only white people can be British?  Arguing that women are inherently inferior?  Insisting that sex is purely physiologically determined and fixed at birth, and that trans* people are trying to fool the rest of us?  Of course, where you draw the line is a huge messy argument in itself.  This has long been the debate around the rise of UKIP to apparent ‘legitimacy’, but even Nigel Farage appreciates that there are some things that should not be said in public (even if he’s only kicking people out for reasons of expediency).

It’s odd that the one type of debate the arch free-speechers don’t want to hear is the one about what sort of public debate we should be having.  They like to pretend that the line between the acceptable and unacceptable is generally agreed and immovable.

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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.

Letter to the editor

This was a letter I wrote (in anger) to the editor of the Guardian following the publication of an open letter: http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2015/feb/14/letters-censorship
Haven’t heard from them, so I guess they’re not going to publish (I’ve about a 50% hit rate, but this one is probably too long anyway).  Hope it’s because they’ve chosen somebody more articulate than me. 
I was extremely disappointed to read the list of signatories beneath today’s letter (14/2/15) regarding censorship at universities; some names were to be expected, but I would have hoped that others would have looked more closely at the situation.  At the very least, a number of different circumstances have been conflated here to create the appearance of an orchestrated campaign against free speech.

It is striking how one-sided the reporting of the Smurthwaite affair, which seems to have occasioned this particular outbreak of hand-wringing, has been.  As anybody who has bothered to listen to the Goldsmiths comedy society is aware, there is no ban, and was going to be no organised protest.  The university feminist society declined to jointly present the gig, at least in part of the basis of certain of Kate Smurthwaite’s expressed opinions, but there is a lot of blue sky between deciding not to endorse, and calling for a ban.  They also voted against a picket.  It is possible that certain individuals may have decided to act privately, but this is both unclear and irrelevant to the stated case.  The main source of information regarding the probability of a picket has been Smurthwaite herself, who has conveniently managed to use her reported ‘no-platforming’ to acquire, er, a substantial media platform.

There has also been a deliberate juxtaposition of the original ‘no-platforming’ against fascists with the current movement, as if to suggest that those involved are claiming equivalence.  To be opposed to the institutional endorsement of those – such as Julie Bindel – who insist on objectification and denial of the agency of sex workers, for example, thereby indirectly perpetuating violence against a marginalised group is not to equate with groups who advocate direct violence.  Nor is it a reason to fail to act against such an unconscionable position.
Most disturbingly, there has been an attempt to reposition student feminists as those with the power, against those so voiceless that they are barely able to get onto Newsnight.  Presumably most of the signatories would support a grassroots (student or otherwise) movement against certain organisations – maybe Shell, UKIP, or BAe – so one wonders why the recent action has caused such consternation.  Maybe it’s because it has achieved a modicum of success; everybody thinks that students are supposed to protest, but the idea that they might be listened to is apparently beyond the pale.

On Violence

An argument I have heard far too often of late is that feminists and others misuse the term violence’.  The general position of some is that only ‘real’ violence should be a concern: that resulting in bodily injury or death.  Anything that does not result is of a lesser seriousness, if it should be regarded at all.  Obviously one aspect of this ridiculousness is to regard the fears of women and others.  The response is usually, and quite justifiably, to enquire if people need to die before anyone will act on an issue.

The opposing *male* position is that these groups are trying to manipulate language to their own end.  Firstly, there is of course nothing wrong with this.  Language is malleable.   But the objection is also based on falsehood.  I’m no expert, but I recall that many of those charged with violence and condemned to the Inferno of Dante hadn’t been physically so (we looked into it as part of a pub conversation about where exactly in hell we’d expect to find ourselves.  Which probably tells you more about us than the actual results of the ‘research’). The blasphemous were deemed to be violent against god, and homosexuals and other sexual ‘deviants’ violent against nature.  So even if I can’t win an argument with these fools on any more reasonable grounds, at least I can pedantically point out that the notion of non-physical violence has been knocking around for at least a few centuries.

Kill Yr Idols

I’m not the biggest fan of autobiography, but I’ve read a few, and even enjoyed some.  But they have their dangers.  I’ve just finished reading Peter Medawar’s Memoir of a Thinking Radish, and while it’s not badly written, I’m left with the impression of him as a pretty unpleasant person, and a terrible snob.  The latter isn’t helped by his repeatedly pointing out the snobbery of others as an example of the worst failing in the society of his time.

It’s hard when reading a period piece to separate the individual’s failings from those commonly part of the culture.  So much of the defence of Churchill (whether justified or not) depends on his being ‘a man of his time’.  But Medawar was younger than my grandparents, and writing in the mid-80s.  I don’t expect the most enlightened attitude towards sexuality, but for someone of his erudition to assume that every homosexual man is just waiting to assault him as soon as his guard is down is perverse, not to say egotistical.

This isn’t the first scientist who I’ve come to dislike, but it most cases it’s mediated through another source.  Biographers of science obviously focus on those with the greatest achievements, but it shouldn’t be surprising or worrying when these brilliant scientists turn out to be less impressive as people.  One of the examples is quoted as favourably reviewing Medawar on the back cover: Stephen Jay Gould, who from my other reading seems to be quite as petty and rude as his great rival, Dawkins (if somewhat less vocal, even before he died).

At least I can save myself the bother of reading Honest Jim, safe in the secure knowledge that James Watson can’t really come across as any worse than I already know him to be.