We are witnessing an attack on free speech, we are told. The right of activists and thinkers to express their convictions openly is being curtailed by an oversensitive mob – “special snowflakes”, to be exact. This week has seen such discussions surrounding Peter Tatchell, with whom an NUS representative refused to share a platform because he signed a letter on the Observer last year about moves to prevent Germaine Greer and similar academics from speaking on campuses because of their views.
It’s also hit the headlines that Hope Not Hate founder Nick Lowles is facing mass student protests after being accused of Islamophobia. He posted a public Facebook post claiming that some students were trying to “no-platform” him.
Perhaps it’s true that this is merely “special snowflake” behaviour. However, to my mind, the coddled and sanctimonious voices here are not the students engaging in “no-platforming” or withdrawing from debates but an elder generation of activists petulantly claiming they are being silenced from their “right” to be heard in the national press.
Take Julie Bindel, who voiced this very opinion last week in a video claiming that we are a society in which “censorship is becoming the new normal.” In making these claims, Bindel refers to instances in which she has been disinvited by student feminist groups due to her views on trans people. In the video, Bindel’s specious argument suggests that “banning” speakers prevents expansion of knowledge and “rational resistance.”
The existence of the video, which has millions of views, undermines Bindel’s point that she is being censored and arguing for rational resistance is a very interesting line for Bindel herself to take. In a 2006 documentary ‘Lefties: Angry Wimmin’, Bindel alludes to the fact that she and many of her revolutionary sisters in the 1970s were involved with groups like Angry Women, who took direct action against sex shops because of their views of pornography.
While Bindel didn’t take part in the violence herself, it is clear she was on the side of some young radical feminists who took to smashing up private businesses in order to protect women from the perceived psychic damage of porn as “violence against women”. Whatever happened to the pornographers’ freedom of expression?
How odd that such feminist groups wanted to protect women from the distress they saw inherently in porn and now Bindel herself cannot respect young feminists and trans people similarly wanting to make their own stand – not in secretive direct action but out in the open, providing their reasoning.
In 2011, Bindel signed an open letter calling for the banning of preachers from East London mosques who held homophobic views. The letter states that their presence made gay and lesbian people feel unsafe. Surely this mirrors the “safer space” activism of many students who are now the object of her scorn?
Veteran (a phrase that now seems to mean you are above reproach) human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has, as aforementioned, similarly been in the media after NUS LGBT Officer Fran Cowling stated in private emails she did not wish to participate in a debate with him. Tatchell disclosed the contents of her email and her name across the national press in response.
Let us remember when we speak of “free speech” that those arguments presume everyone’s voice has an equal voice in society. Here, Tatchell’s voice carries much more command and weight than that of his young opponent.
She believed he had endorsed transphobia and racism by signing an open letter against no-platforming last year. I personally do not believe Tatchell is himself transphobic or racist, but his publicly wounded feelings and superiority about free speech grate.
Tatchell himself has banned meetings of Muslim groups and written on the subject. In the 1990s he advocated the “outing” of gay MPs and public figures, despite the personal harm this would cause them, saying, “In these circumstances, "outing" is queer self-defence. Many of us feel a moral duty to do whatever we can to protect members of our community against victimisation.”
Outing was used as a tactic precisely because Tatchell recognised the power imbalance between himself and powerful closeted MPs.
Bindel and Tatchell as activists for feminism and gay rights have recognised the truth about free speech: free speech is in the eye of the beholder. It is the frequent defence of the oppressor who knows that minorities lack the same power to exercise their own free speech in approved ways.
Bindel and Tatchell sought to express their politics and defend against powerful majorities using whatever tactics they could to rectify an imbalance of power in society in favour of women and gay people. How strange that now they scorn this in students and trans people.
No-platforming is as valid a means to exercise free speech as any other. We are not in a declining era of free speech - but we appear to be in a golden age of entitled hypocrisy.