Gender, ‘censorship’ and campus free speech

Black and white picture of Germaine Greer, an older white woman wearing a black top, holding a glass of some drink in her handLast Sunday there was a letter in the Observer, the Sunday sister paper to the Guardian, from a long list of people (the principal signatories being Beatrix Campbell and Deborah Cameron; the others appeared only on the website) protesting against the censorship of opinions at British universities, principally those “whose views are deemed ‘transphobic’ or ‘whorephobic’”:

Last month, there were calls for the Cambridge Union to withdraw a speaking invitation to Germaine Greer; then the Green party came under pressure to repudiate the philosophy lecturer Rupert Read after he questioned the arguments put forward by some trans-activists. The feminist activist and writer Julie Bindel has been “no-platformed” by the National Union of Students for several years.

“No platforming” used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists. The feminists who hold these views have never advocated or engaged in violence against any group of people. Yet it is argued that the mere presence of anyone said to hold those views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety.

The overreach of “no platform” policies is something I have been periodically campaigning against on this blog for years, as such policies have been used to silence speakers hostile to Israel or who espouse other views which go against fashionable liberal opinion. “No platform” was previously reserved for racists and fascists; in this day and age, they are used against any group that allegedly makes another group feel threatened. Racists and fascists were violent, as are the EDL whose leader has also been the focus of “no platform” policies; the same cannot be said of most radical feminists. I opposed the “no platform” policy against Julie Bindel last October, and my position has not changed. (More: Louise Pennington, Stavvers, Victoria Brownworth. A letter in response was published in today’s edition.)

A concrete student union building with a glass frontage, next to a concrete brutalist bell tower and a temporary theatre stand, with people sitting around tables. The sky is deep blue with a few fluffy cloudsSomething that is not being widely acknowledged is that the groups implementing “no platform” policies on campus may be quite small. When I was involved in union politics at Aberystwyth (left) in the 90s, the quorum for a general meeting was 70 (the total student population was about 6,000), and a policy motion (one which did not change the constitution or seek to remove an elected union officer) required a simple majority, i.e. just 36 people. These motions could be extremely damaging; when I was there, the union was forced to hold a rent strike which hardly any students participated in. Many unions were already doing away with general meetings as meeting after meeting was inquorate; they moved to a Student Representative Council, which consisted of elected representatives of halls, academic departments, societies and so on. Thus it cannot be assumed that, just because a union has a policy refusing a platform to someone like Julie Bindel, there is a groundswell of student support for the policy. It’s more likely to be a small group of activists who have gained the upper hand.

The nature of the likes of the BNP (and the NF before them) and today’s trans-hostile radical feminists is entirely different: the former advocated wholesale repatriation of non-white immigrants and cultivated popular hostility to them which (with help from them) often resulted in violence. In addition, fascism when it took power had proven itself to be violently repressive, bellicose and genocidal, and a nation which had defeated that ideology were quite justified in seeking to suppress a violently racist group trying to resurrect it. Much as one may disagree with the stance of radical feminists on transsexual or transgender people — their unyielding policy that someone should be regarded as their original sex, regardless of whether any visible or audible sign of it remains — and their often stereotypical and spurious justifications for it, they do not use violence, at least on anything like the same scale. When I pointed this out to someone who had complained that feminists only objected to no-platform policies against a ‘horrendous woman’ but not to the likes of Tommy Robinson, she claimed:

Being violent and abusive DOES include advocating that trans women are not women, actively doing all you can to make sure trans people are denied access to healthcare, being complicit in the online abuse they receive that leads to worsening mental health. That IS violence!

In other words, violence means wronging someone. That is not what most people understand by violence: we mean attacking their bodies or destroying their property. It means a physical attack. This use of language is dishonest.

The TERFs’ (trans exclusionary radical feminists’) hostility to transgender women is something that can and should be debated out in the open, because much of it is based on falsehood and dishonesty which can easily be identified. The inner corps consists of a small group of 40- and 50-something lesbians who hate being female, and if you look far enough into their self-published writings, you will find many of them saying as much. They cannot fathom anyone wanting to be a woman; a woman who says she does must have been ‘conditioned’ to think so (a common imperialist-feminist response when a woman makes a choice they disapprove of), while a transsexual must be doing so in search of some weird sexual kick. Most of their claims can be debunked pretty easily: the claim that transgender people still benefit from male privilege or socialisation (true of some, but others never enjoyed it in any meaningful way); the claim that people transition to avoid being gay (not true), the persistent emphasis on females as a ‘class’ rather than simply a sex; the false concern about helping adolescents to transition to avoid puberty being “child abuse”.

In addition, some of them display open contempt for young people, especially young women, and in certain blog posts appeal to the authority of age or parenthood and convey resentment that young women do not listen to them or give them the ‘respect’ they think they deserve. The same woman who wanted to brand a 15-year-old boy a rapist for having sex wtih a 13-year-old girl last November, for example, called Caroline Criado-Perez (who is largely on the same side) “just a baby” in a Twitter conversation in which she also said she did not have young women for friends but is more likely to be friends with their mothers; she was “mum” to the younger women. A rad-fem blogger calling herself Ann Tagonist noted that other older women hold similar views to them on the status of trans women, observing of the comedienne Roseanne Barr:

In fact Roseanne Barr is often cited as a famous TERF but Roseanne herself would admit she is not a Radical Feminist. The reality is that Roseanne is a Grandmother who shares the Radical Feminist belief that men shouldn’t be waving their dicks around women’s private spaces when they’re not wanted. Incidentally my own Grandmother shares this belief and so does every other Grandmother I know. Grandmothers are TERFs.

It is not clear precisely which generation is most worthy of young women’s attention, given that older generations tend to have conservative beliefs on other matters, like abortion and homosexuality. Why should young women listen to one older generation of women with conservative opinions but not another? In any case, I know women who are mothers, and who have experienced the things rad-fems identify as the means of women’s oppression, such as rape and domestic/relationship violence, who are on the pro-trans side.

That said, it has become difficult to take a moderate position on these issues, because the ‘other side’ consists of a group that insists that not only gender, but biological sex itself, is a social construct (and this term is used to mean it is baseless). Here is one example, although there are many others. The fact that with intersex people it is sometimes difficult to establish which side of the line somebody falls (as is sometimes necessary when, for example, an intersex person participates in women’s sports) is taken to mean that male and female are false categories when in fact the vast majority of people are not intersex and fall easily into one of those two. The free-gender position argues that someone’s gender identity is everyone else’s duty to recognise, even when there is no physical reality to it, whether they are intersex or simply the other sex; the bar for being a ‘trans woman’ is set so low that the proverbial ‘man in a dress’ could indeed qualify, with all the dangers that poses for women and, especially, women with learning impairments. In the last couple of years it has become fashionable to refer to certain individuals who profess a female gender identity as “she” and by their chosen feminine names when they are, in fact, male in every respect, whatever the rights and wrongs of their situation (Bradley or Chelsea Manning being the best known). Their usual response to anyone stating the facts on these issues is mockery or “heard it all before”, when in fact their position consists of an awful lot of self-serving, baseless dogma. Cathy Brennan’s repeating “penis is male” like a stuck record on Twitter may not strike anyone as rational debate, but it’s true.

The other major point of contention is the radical feminists’ and their fellow travellers’ attitude to prostitution, advocating the “Nordic model” which makes it a crime to pay for sex, but not to offer it. The same feminists who support the free-gender position also favour legalising brothels so that prostitutes can work in the same house in greater safety than on their own. It’s a mystery why anyone would think this is a matter that merits banning a public speaker; there are other issues, such as drug legalisation, where there is harm in both prohibiting and permitting, yet there is no question that a debate on whether drugs should or should not be legalised or decriminalised, with a speaker against, would be allowed to proceed. Both sides talk as if the only issue at stake was the welfare or safety of the prostitutes, but there is also the safety of other women in the neighbourhood, as well as simply whether the ‘trade’ should be tolerated at all.

The group which wrote the original letter complain about their ‘free speech’ being suppressed, but as other commentators have pointed out, it is this group (not so much the inner corps, more the fellow travellers such as Glosswitch, Sarah Ditum and Helen Lewis, who edits the New Statesman which publishes the other two writers’ work online) who get a lot of column inches in the mainstream press (or “malestream” as they call it when it is critical of them) while very few feminist writers in the mainstream media are on the pro-trans side, despite being very well-represented on the ground and in public campaigns such as for disabled people’s rights and benefits. They are also apt to claim persecution, often presenting criticism (including from other feminists) as bullying or harassment. This is potentially damaging to their other work, as they expect the public to believe them when they say women do not lie about being raped, yet they lie about other forms of abuse and use words like harassment, stalking etc. to mean whatever they want them to mean.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll understand that I do not write this in support of either of the two factions, but nonetheless, neither of them consists of racists or fascists who threaten violence, and some of them have a long history of campaigning for women’s rights and against violence against women, and it does not really benefit anyone to have such campaigners’ voices silenced because their other views (which may not be aired on the occasions they are invited as they are not relevant) offend or upset some people. That said, I do not believe there should be set-piece public debates about these questions at universities, because it is possible to ‘win’ such a debate by surprising the audience with some statistic or some sensational claim which may be untrue or distorted but these facts cannot be ascertained until after the event. And while it may be true that the four incidents mentioned in the original letter were not all they were made out to be, I have personally seen attempts to pressure universities and other venues to deny Julie Bindel in particular a platform (by circulating public petitions etc), and her behaviour and views do not merit it.

Image source: user Walnut Whippet on flickr; cropped slightly by Daniel Case - Cropped slightly from; distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution (BY) 2.0 licence.

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