Why men must believe women about rape.

CW; TW: rape

This is the first post I’ve written for a particular audience: other men.  This is because the last thing women need – and it’s not as if they don’t already have a near infinite supply – is another man telling them about something they are far more qualified to talk about.  Also, as a feminist/ally/whatever, I understand that the most helpful thing I can do is try to talk to other men, because that’s where – at least in theory – I have an advantage.

The key point is that rape is not like other crimes, and until men at large appreciate this, it’s going to be difficult to act effectively against it.  This is not to say that all other acts are the same, but rape cannot just be treated as another offence on the list the police and courts are to deal with.  This is not just because it is overwhelmingly directed at women (and, yes, I am perfectly aware that a significant number of men will also experience rape), nor because of the terrible stigma attached to being a victim, although both of these are related.  But in no other crime is it quite so common to find people denying that it ever happened.  This is why you’ll find campaigns, hashtags, petitions and the like circulating to announce that other women *believe* an accuser.  It’s all too easy to mentally dismiss these as being about female solidarity – and that is part of it, and a good thing in its own right – but it goes beyond that, as rape is the only crime where the public response routinely involves attacking the victim.

Take a murder trial: at some point in proceedings, the defence is able to provide a good enough alibi that the defendant is acquitted; so what happens next?  Obviously this may be upsetting for the victim’s family and friends, and a set-back for the police and CPS, but a setback is all it (necessarily) is.  The first thing you expect to see outside the court is the leading officer announcing that they intend to reopen the investigation and find out who *really* committed the crime.  The same would apply for an assault, a robbery, or any of a variety of other crimes, and it may be true in the case of the cliched attack-by-a-masked-man-in-a-dark-alley.  But with the vast majority of rapes, when the trial falls apart (assuming that things have advanced that far) the default assumption is now that the alleged crime never actually took place.  Or that there was sexual activity, but the nature of it magically changed to being either fully consensual, or a mere misunderstanding or miscommunication (not that the latter should be excusable).

It’s not so much that I’m arguing that we should treat rape differently de novo, as observing that we already do, so we need to react to that.  When a killing, or a theft is announced, we immediately accept the reality of the crime.  There may be all sorts of theories floating around about the perpetrator, or how the crime was committed, but things have to get to a pretty extreme state before we consider that it might not have happened in the first place.  So really, in saying that we believe a rape victim is only to restore that crime to the status we accord to the rest.  To say that we believe a rape victim is to accord to them no more than the basic courtesy afforded to the rest of society.

Some expected responses

Now a certain fraction of mankind will immediately leap up against the idea that any one crime should be treated differently to the rest as counter to various principles of justice.  My first response to that is to observe that legal and judicial systems are constructed and evolve over time; we might like to pretend that there are eternal underlying concepts, but the fact is that we have constantly modified both laws and systems to reflect the wider society.  Also we already treat different crimes in slightly different fashions.  Nobody seems to object to the notion that sexual crimes need to be handled with greater delicacy than others.

The second is to observe that apologists often seem very attached to a misreading of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  This is part of a whole raft of narrow legal principles that people like to interpret as general rights, but without any sound basis (see also: people shouting about Freedom of Speech while failing to understand that the right, as most clearly given by the first amendment to the US constitution, which even non-US citizens tend to use a benchmark, is purely to not have *the state* limit one’s speech).  If you’ve committed a crime in fact, you are not innocent up until the moment of conviction, in the sense of not having done it.  The facts themselves do not change.  You *are* innocent in the eyes of the law, but that is not the same thing.  Nor is there any expectation against members of the public forming opinions at any stage in proceedings, except in the case of their being required to perform jury service.  I challenge anybody to read the news without forming instant (if potentially malleable) opinions about the guilt or innocence of those reportedly involved in any incidents they read a few lines about.

And finally, and associated with the above, there’s the fact that a rape trial is, to an extent, zero-sum.  To say that the defendant is innocent is necessarily to imply that the accuser is guilty (of fabricating, or at least exaggerating the incident).  And in plenty of cases it goes much further than that: it has been horrible to observe over the past few years how many people tangentially connected to the Ched Evans case have attacked the victim in all sorts of public ways.  And the rest of us have largely let this go because this is what the friends and family of someone accused of a crime are *supposed* to do – leap to the defence.  But in the case of rape this can seemingly only be done by attacking the character and credibility of somebody who has already been subject to a horrific crime (and let’s not ignore that in this case he was convicted and hasn’t been able to provide grounds to appeal or overturn).

So this is why it’s important to believe anybody who says that they have been raped.  We all know it happens a lot, even if we refuse to believe it in the face of overwhelming statistics.  On the same basis we should also know that false accusations are vanishingly rare (not least because of the huge cost to the victim of going public.  I don’t know where this myth of women getting rich and famous of the back of making accusations came from, but it’s as persistent as it is poisonous).  But even if this were a possibility, with any other crime we’d expect the police and the courts to root it out.  The women who have been raped deserve our support, and much of that comes from simply saying that we believe them.  There is a time and place for scepticism, but it is not in the face of somebody who has just faced one of the worst experiences a person possibly can, and who will also be acutely aware that this is just the beginning of their ordeal.

Believing rape victims is the only decent thing to do.


Please note that when I’ve talked about rape in this, I include various other sexual offences; this is not about a particular legal definition, but a type of crime and how society does (and should) deal with it.


On Taxation

We have a bad attitude to taxation in the UK.  I suspect the same is true in virtually every other country in the world (Rentier states have a whole bunch of their own issues).  It’s not just that we dislike paying tax ourselves, although that would be a good starting point, but it’s the way that – most of the time – we celebrate people getting one over on the Inland Revenue.  At the same time, when we do pay tax, we are ever conscious of how much we think we should receive in return.  This is not a good recipe for long-term stability – if nobody wants to pay for more than they *think* they receive in return, there’s no room for people in need to, even temporarily, rely on the state’s largesse.  At some other point I’d like to talk about the difference between how much people gain from the state compared with how much they think they do, and how this is the foundation of the abuse heaped on people who claim benefits, but not right now.

(of course this isn’t true of absolutely everybody.  I’ve recently noted my admiration for J K Rowling for her refusal to move herself or her assets overseas, since she maintains her admiration for the welfare state that supported her before she struck it lucky.  At the same time I observed, with no disrespect meant to her, that this shouldn’t really be the sort of thing that needs to be celebrated.  I’m also sure that there are a good number of regular salaried people who simply pay what they owe without grumbling)

This fits into our wider view of the state.  Unlike some countries, the state is never of us.  It is always other, and slightly hostile.  I say slightly hostile, because we’re nowhere near situation in the US, where the federal government is seen by a good number of people, egged on by state-level administrations, as being the enemy of the people.  But conversely we rarely seem to consider that the UK government might do anything simply for the good of the population at large.  This is probably helped by the impression, not unjustified, that most people get into government to satisfy their personal ambitions.  But the effect is that when we hand over a money as taxpayers, we think of it as gone, spent, even stolen.  We fail to consider that at least a portion of it will be spent to benefit us all, as citizens (I know we’re technically subjects, but I don’t see that as incompatible with citizenship, even if it is horribly anachronistic).

Of course this is bullshit.  For all of the bad decisions, inefficiencies, and vote-chasing policies, the state does a huge amount for all of us.  Of course much of this may be down to the civil service rather than elected members of parliament, but it stands.  Feel free to argue about any single area you disagree with, but it still stands.  Just don’t pretend that just because you don’t receive what you consider to be ‘benefits’ (and I know a considerable number of people won’t count Child Benefit, because ‘everybody’ gets that), you don’t get anything from the state.

Framing taxation

If we don’t like paying tax, and have had a long series (a long, long series) of governments who reward their friends, allies, and potential voters with breaks and rebates, it follows that tax itself, and especially an increase therein, is punitive.  Carrot for some people, stick for others.  This is not healthy.

This probably isn’t helped by the way some chancellors use rates, particularly on things like alcohol and tobacco, in an attempt to steer people away from ‘bad’ behaviour (and I realise that things are more complicated than that, but it is framed that way).  This means that those who wish to indulge must pay up in some kind of penitential gesture.

If we’re being punished regardless of merit, this automatically pushes us towards favouring those who flout the law.  In a police state, petty criminals are heroes, and those who escape ‘justice’ to be lauded.  People can feel no personal connection, or affection for a body they believe to be coercing them.

Anyway, I’m tired so I’m not going to fully develop things now.  Suffice it to say that I think that we need to rethink how we think about tax.  It needs to be a part of our civic duty, of how we participate in society.  But I’d like to be able to achieve that without going down the nationalistic road.  It’s not about being better than other countries, although a little healthy competition might help.  It’s about making our country better in itself.  Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening while we’ve got such an unimaginative bunch of wasters in charge.  Can you think of anything sufficiently inspiring that the coalition have achieved?  In little more that five years the Attlee government built the NHS and modern welfare state.  Even Blair oversaw the introduction of the minimum wage before he fucked it all up by dragging us along on his military adventures.  But Cameron and Clegg?  Sod all to show for five years except a shit-load of people reliant on food banks.  Ah, fuck it, I’m too annoyed to make a coherent point.


Please note that I’m not arguing against criticising the administration of government, where and how it spends money, or the tax rate.  These are separate and narrower points.  But realise that if you think the state is wasteful, that needs to be fixed before you can demand that you pay less.

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.

Anti-corporate activity

I have accounts with HSBC, and I’m not feeling too comfortable about it right now.  In the last week or so, there have been a couple of stories that don’t exact leave my bank looking squeaky clean.  To be fair, as far as the Daily Telegraph business goes, I’m far more concerned about the newspaper’s actions – I expect advertisers to try and get coverage that suits them, and journalists should be fighting against this.  But then that’s a point I shall pick up on.  I’m going to refer directly to this case, but most of my points with be general and highly theoretical, as I don’t know the specifics.  I’m a philosopher, not an economist or lawyer.

Of course this is all a bit ridiculous, as it’s hardly a secret that a corporation like HSBC has been involved in ethically questionable stuff for years.  It’d be nice to think that when a company we buy from, or use the services of, does something wrong, we could immediately decide to stop using them.  And to an extent, that is possible.  But it’s complicated by a whole bunch of factors.  For a start, not buying from a particular shop, say, is a lot easier than cutting off a long-term relationship.  And then there’s always the matter of finding somewhere else that isn’t up to the same stuff.  Which in many sectors is easier said than done.  Linking these is how much difficulty it’s going to be for me, balanced against the effect it will have on the companies in question.  I would like to see change, but want to avoid just cutting off my nose to spite my face.

What to do and when?

So, I guess the first point is deciding when it’s time to do something.  I guess this is one of the biggest hurdles, built of inertia and cynicism.  Disengagement with capitalism tout court is just not really viable, at least not without a like-minded community around you, but it feels odd to single out a single company without picking on, say, an arms manufacturer, or a chemical company that is directly poisoning the water supply.  But then that’s the point, I’m not saying I want to get out of HSBC because of one evil thing they’ve done; it’s the whole shebang, amoral at best.  To be fair, against that is the other side of the inertia coin: it’s not like they’ve been great to me.  If I’d made a fortune, it wouldn’t make their behaviour acceptable, but it would at least provide a personal, selfish reason to stay with them.

Anyway, so let’s take it that their crimes are significant enough to outweigh any good they’ve done me.  What then?  I could go into HSBC tomorrow (well maybe not tomorrow, as I’m in the wrong country, but soon) and ask to close my accounts, and I hope it happen pretty quickly.  But then what?  For all sorts of reasons, I can’t really see myself living without a bank at all, at least not for the foreseeable future.  So I need to find a suitable alternative.  A little while back, the obvious place to start would be something like the Cooperative, but they’ve been tainted too.  Still, I’m not sure if they’re beyond redemption, so I need to do some research.  Failing that, I need to do more research to find somebody else.

Obviously, when I say research, it’ll largely be looking at websites that discuss these things, and balancing them against my practicalities, including how much inconvenience I’m prepared to put up with.  The latter is something I came across when trying not to use Amazon any more.  It was fine when in the UK, but getting English language academic literature at short notice in the Netherlands is more difficult.  So I don’t think I’m going to be able to commit to that until I return home to London.  Unfortunately, lecturers aren’t that forgiving of failure to get the texts, however principled the reason is.  And I’m obviously not yet prepared to bugger up my studies.

On the plus side, boycotting Amazon is an established thing, so I’d be adding my action to that of others.  Of course there’s the fact that these others haven’t yet achieved their aims, but somebody has to be the one who pushes things over the limit.  And we know that these things can have an effect – you don’t kill the company off, but you can make them change their policies.  On my return to London, I am going to take a little time to look at where I shop, and commit to being a bit more selective.  It’s a small thing, but I hope a good one.  And, of course, there are various other forms of pressure one can get involved in putting on.

Low expectations

Another factor that feeds the inertia is that most companies are only doing what we expect of them.  We might think of small companies as being, or trying to be, ethical, but once they’re big enough to hire professional managers, that goes out of the window.  In fact, as I understand it, such managers and directors were legally compelled to behave as they do: they could be found negligent or fined if they failed to act in their company’s best interests (which sounds reasonable), in terms of maximising stock price.  While there are certainly issues around this – social responsibility – it can work in the long term.  But it all started to go horribly wrong as the view got ever shorter and shorter – directors running a company in a way that will kill it in 5 years, in order to maximise for the current financial year.  Even very pro-capital types have seen that this is untenable.

In the HSBC/Telegraph case, the accusation is two-fold: first, that HSBC is using its financial clout, through advertising in the paper, to affect the editorial position; and second that the Telegraph is accepting this, and modifying its behaviour in line with the client’s expectations.  Of course the Telegraph denies that this is the case, but how this pans out remains to be seen.  Anyway, there are broadly three ways we can view this apparent transaction: either as a straight up trade for a service, as something more informal akin to a gratuity, or as a bribe (the implication from the coverage being that it looks closest to the latter.

If HSBC is simply paying for favourable coverage, then the transaction would be legitimate, and our concerns, from a social point of view, directed at the system that allows this.  The more laissez-faire position might be simply to complain about the price and the openness – it’s not that either party is doing anything inherently wrong, it’s just that they’re getting a lot of benefit for not much outlay, and they’re doing it in an underhand fashion.  From this point of view, the system is damaged rather than irreparably broken.  Some form of regulation may be needed, but the issue is with this specific case (and possibly many others), rather than with the concept.

At the other extreme, there will be people who look at it as a straight-up bribe.  In this case, there is a clear need for legal action, which will no doubt be messy and expensive, but is entirely justified.  However, the Telegraph is not a public body, so this looks untenable.  We may not like it, but there’s no reason in principle why it should be treated this way.  Notwithstanding the legal details of the particular transaction, it’s hard to say, as things stand, that a private business shouldn’t be able to sell its credibility if it chooses to do so (and its shareholders support the move).

So it looks like we’re somewhere in the middle ground, where you might consider the advertising payments like some form of gratuity.  There’s no formal expectation of return for the money – other than the actual advertising space – but an unspoken, um, thing.  It seems entirely natural that a company should act slightly favourably towards its best customers, if it can be done without breaking the law.  I guess this is because ‘everybody does it’.  So why is this case unacceptable?  The easy solution would be to push it towards one of the prior positions: either to completely legitimise the transaction (thereby opening it to regulation), or to ban it completely.  But I don’t really see either happening.  It suits too many people to have something like this, in that grey area.

So, who’s done wrong?

I think most people will agree that, if this situation pans out in line with the accusations, that the Telegraph had certainly acted in an undesirable fashion, if not an illegal one.  Readers of that particular organ, as well as society at large, see the value of a free press.  Of course, like free speech and the free market, this is always going to have some limits, but freedom of the press is at least something to aspire to.  But this is the ‘easy’ part.  How to solve the problem is much less so, but at least having some parameter makes it viable in principle.

More complicated is the matter of the advertiser, and this is where the problem of low expectation kicks in.  We expect our newspapers to be free-ish, or at least open about their influences.  It’s ‘fine’ that each paper tends to have a party affiliation, as long as we know about it.  And of course we tend to choose our reading material on that basis.  Our expectations of another type of company, especially a financial one, are equally simple: that it do whatever it can – within the law – to maximise its profits.  As long as the wider capitalist system works, this seems fine, as a company’s takings and profits should be broadly derived from two factors: whether it provides the right service, demanded by *the public*, and how efficiently it does so.  This is how the private sector is supposed to work, and is the basic argument for its superiority over the public.  The problem is when we have two conflicting sets of expectations.  We expect a company to behave as specified, but we also expect it to behave with some degree of social responsibility.

And this gets us to how we act to get a result that we want.  The straight-forward way we should act, the way within the capital-based system, is that we withdraw our custom.  If enough of us do so, any well-managed company will modify its behaviour.  After all, the customer is always right.  And we know that this works to an extent.  McDonalds didn’t start sourcing their meat more rigorously, and selling salads, out of the kindness of their hearts.  But it is also extremely limited.

The alternative is a wholesale rearrangement of our social system.  I have no idea how to do this, but I reckon its got to be worth looking into.  We don’t have to accept the status quo just because it’s been like that a long time.  Let’s not make what is essentially the naturalistic fallacy writ large.


I’m  not entirely sure I want to tear down capitalism in toto.  It’s a massively flawed system, and often does a huge amount of harm, but it also allows for much good, if properly regulated. A lot would argue that it’s not that capitalism is bad, just the particular form of it we seem to have evolved of late.  I’m not entirely convinced by this.

At the very least, some consideration of what to put in its place is needed.  A lot of people will shout for communism, but I can’t help recalling how that worked out last time. Which is not to say it should be ruled out, but at the very least the vanguard business needs to be sorted.  Leaders are too easily convinced of their own importance and necessity to not be corrupted.  If we are going to make anything else work, it needs to be built from the ground up.

But I think the biggest problem to overcome is a lack of *imagination*.  Capital has been the dominant system for a considerable amount of time, taking over from militaristic monarchies and aristocracies (I’m aware that it’s been a while since we expected our kings to lead troops into battle, but this was the foundational premise).  I think that at least part of the problem with communism as it panned out is that it found itself working within the same framework.  In the same way that monarchies rested initially upon might, then some kind of traditional claim (which may have been institutionalised as divine right, but was essentially: we should rule because that’s always been the way), communism is built on the same premise as capitalism: that power goes with control of capital and the means of production.  The only difference is that the state claims these, rather than private individuals.  No wonder the same problem remain.
So if we’re going to build a new sort of society, what do we start with?

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.


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.

The Novelty of Extremism

Another week, another attack attributed to ‘extremism’.  At least in the West – the rest of the world expects these things far more frequently, to the point where the lack of coverage by the (Western-owned) news media is actually kind of logical: news is defined by novelty.  In this sense, it’s not ‘news’ that another car bomb, attack on a rival sect, or the like , has occurred in Iraq or much of the surrounding region.  Of course it’s pretty fucking important to the people living there, but as far as the West is concerned, this is awful business as usual.

ISIS (or IS, ISIL, etc.) and their ilk have apparently broken through this apathy by apparently raising the brutality to another level.  I’m not entirely convinced by this notion, not least because it’s pretty much impossible to come up with something to do to another human being that hasn’t been done before.  Burning alive?  While not perhaps as common as certain tales about witchfinders might suggest, the practice dates back millennia, was in the playbook of the Catholic church – and others – for centuries, and was still on the statute book of European nations well into the 19th century.  Of course we don’t do it now (at least not as a directly-mandated method of execution – incendiary weapons are still in use), but when you’re in a state of war – something that various of the involved parties seem to agree on, if not the implications of this – you don’t get to choose exactly what methods and techniques are permissible to your opponent.

Rather, the outrage seems to be at the particularly public nature of the crimes.  This again is not, in itself, a novelty: every historical nation appreciated the (apparent) value of making executions public.  The difference here is the nature of publicity.  Rather than making everybody head off to the town square to watch a hanging, we can now sit at home, click on a few links, and be exposed to the horror.  And the nature of the web is such that it is ISIS who are largely in control of this process.  Of course it is the choice of an individual to watch, or to decide that being aware of the crime is sufficient without requiring first-hand viewing.  But the role of the formal media, literally to mediate between the public and the world, has been reduced.

This presents a problem for the media establishment, and thus for the state, of which it is a part.  This is not to suggest that the mainstream media is under direct control in the Soviet style, or even in the more subtle fashion of the BBC (I am not attacking the BBC here , as I think it’s fantastic for all sort of reasons, but the nature of the licence-fee funded system is such that it works under certain constraints).  Nor is this to confuse the state with the government of the day.  But the variations between the press in different countries show how each nation tailors its own media.  In the greatest part this is determined, if unconsciously, by the public, but the powerful are able to steer more deliberately.

Given the fact that they (and by ‘they’ I mean both the mainstream media and the wider state) can’t control the release of these videos, of the wider news of atrocities and killings, they are seemingly left with two options.  Either to ignore them, to try and distract by focussing on other events elsewhere, to make their own bigger, better news.  Or to try and make more out of these horrors in an effort to regain control of the narrative.  You might think of it like their being the driver of a vehicle that has been forced out of control and is skidding.  either they try and fight against it and return to the normal course, or they turn further into the skid (which is apparently what one should do in the actual situation, although I guess it requires a certain level of cool and concentration).  And in the most part it looks like they’ve chosen the latter; these atrocities are a ‘new thing’, and worse than anything we have seen before (and therefore require an equally unprecedented response).

One of the problems with this tactic of escalation is that it’s never enough.  Each new act needs to be (or be seen to be) worse than the last, just to require our attention.  Once one expects novelty, the same just won’t do.  So the tag of extremist needs to be attached to ever more items.  If terrorists are threatening our very way of life, why should the police be bothered about environmentalist activists?  Perhaps these people are also extremists, albeit of a less immediately frightening ilk.  Soon, any person or organisation outside the mainstream risks being branded as extremist.  And this is not entirely inaccurate, if extremism is only ever defined against a notion of the ‘moderate’ that is hyper-conservative.  Which is what seems to be happening over the last few years, with the result that the label of ‘extremist’ has ceased to mean anything of significance.

Placing the blame

The nature of the term extremist is such that it requires more specification.  One could be an extremist knitter, or stamp collector, but this is unlikely to make one a threat to the public.  However an extremist Muslim, or even atheist – as belatedly reported by some in the case of the Chapel Hill shootings – is a different matter.  This could expand to political and other ideologies.  However the effect in all these cases is to definitely locate the individual within a particular group.  Muslims have long been aware of this – the way that every attack is followed by the demands for ‘moderate’ Islam to express its regrets, to apologise, and above all to own the crimes of its extremist adherents.  Much of the response (at least on Twitter, as the mainstream media initially saw a non-event) to the Chapel Hill shootings was to turn this expectation onto atheism.  I entirely understand why this happened, but I’m afraid that two wrongs do not make a right.  There may be cases when a wider group needs to be held responsible for the actions of one of its members, but to cast the net so widely is not only a mistake, but is ultimately extremely negative.

Most obviously this is a Bad Thing in that large numbers who are entirely innocent of the original crime are drawn into its wake.  And this can lead to waves of retaliation and escalation.  One of the saddest aspects of the Charlie Hebdo attack was the moment I realised that not only was the response seemingly inevitable, but that it would only lead to further innocent deaths.  As many in the West, including its leaders (seeing obvious political capital, if you’re feeling cynical) praised the idea of a new issue collecting yet more offensive images related to Islam.  Now I’m not questioning their right to publish these, or weighing it against the offence felt by many Muslims entirely innocent of the shootings, but I knew that this was going to lead to more deaths.  I’m not sure of how these numbered, not least because they didn’t fit the narrative, but at least ten people were reported killed in Niger at protests against the new edition.  Without wanting to go into further detail on this matter, I’d note that the reason I’m broadly against the likes of Charlie Hebdo is that it seems so indiscriminate in its targets: for me, satire is meant to be directed solely at the powerful; kicking those worse off than you is bullying, not free speech.

Anyway, returning from that tangent, I’d suggest the other problem with locating specific extremisms is that it leads to looking for the causes – and hence the place to begin preventative activity – in the wrong place.  If Islamic extremists are responsible for x, then we must go to the mosques.  If an atheist extremist shoots some believers, we must demand that Richard Dawkins explain himself.  And so on.  And this means that we miss, possibly wilfully, any possible common causes, and also significant differences.

We ignore the fact that, even if we do pretend that the Chapel Hill shootings were over a ‘simple’ parking dispute, Craig Hicks appears to have been a singularly angry man in a country that permits such people easy access to lethal weaponry.  And we ignore the backgrounds of those involved involved in attacks such as those in Paris this year, London in 2005, and even 9/11, beyond that they were extremist Muslims.  We may think that we are exculpating other ‘moderate’ Muslims, but in fact we are further locating the blame within their community.  And I’d like to look more closely at this.

In describing someone as an Islamic extremist, we don’t question their belonging to the religion.  Other Muslims may be quick to point out that they can’t be ‘real’ Muslims and commit such crimes, but we all too easily brush this aside as a formula, and one that is really just a variation on No True Scotsman (an informal fallacy, where one modifies an assertion on an ad hoc basis to suit emerging data or claims).  But this is to, crucially, miss the importance of the assertion.  To put it bluntly: many of those involved in ‘Islamic’ terrorist acts are rubbish Muslims.  Plenty of accounts have noted that, contrary to what one has been led to expect, they don’t become especially devout, start attending mosque more frequently, or studying the Koran.  Rather, they drink alcohol, take drugs, and engage in promiscuous sex.  Now I might regard it as possible to be a Muslim while failing to adhere to every requirement (I’m afraid my knowledge of the specifics is lacking), but I’d be hard pushed to describe these people as devout.

Rather, these behaviours have more in common with gangs and drug dealers.  And wouldn’t you know it, it appears that quite a few of those involved have exactly this sort of history.  A little reading around suggests that it’s far easier to find people already on the edge of society, already engaged in criminal activity, give them a dose of a highly distorted version Islam, and persuade them to focus their already extant rage at disenfranchisement, than it is to get ordinary Muslims to attack anybody.

To cut a long argument short, focussing on Islam (or atheism, or any other broad ideology) in the wake of a terrorist attack by those claiming affiliation is not only counterproductive in various other ways, but it is a complete waste of time as regards trying to identify the cause.  And we won’t prevent further attacks by treating Islam (even if we tip-toe around our point by attempting to differentiate ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ varieties) as the root cause.  Terrorist attacks, for all of the scale and horror, are criminal acts, and share the same broad source: poverty, disenfranchisement, oppression, exclusion, and the rage that results from these.  The fact that religion or ideology may help to direct, to choose targets, is to misunderstand its role.

And on that note, I return to the Chapel Hill shootings.  Craig Hicks may have shot three people because they were Muslims.  He may even have done it over a parking dispute (although I would be extremely suspicious of anybody who tried to claim that there was nothing more to it).  But to attribute his actions simply to his professed ideology is to miss the point as much as it is to blame the Charlie Hebdo shootings on Islam; he was as far as we can tell, an angry, angry man with a gun.  And one of those is just waiting for a reason to kill somebody.  Any reason.


Having laid out in my usual roundabout fashion, I guess I’ll offer my idea of a ‘solution’.  Firstly, terrorism is a criminal act or acts.  Nothing more.  The moment we treat it as such, not only do we cede power directly to the terrorists, but we degrade our ability to prevent it happening further.  Secondly, you don’t deal with crime without dealing with the causes of crime.  Of course this sounds worryingly like an early Blair soundbite.  But for me this means, most simply, trying to reduce inequality, and lack of employment, education, and political engagement.