Freedom of Speech and Silencing

Have you heard the news? Apparently, sexual harassment policies and dignity at work schemes are the latest assault on freedom of speech. Or, at least, that’s according to the website Spiked Online, which earlier this week released its “Free Speech University Ranking.” This helpful guide used a traffic light system to rank University campuses according to the level to which they censor free speech. Such a study, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, should be an important tool for free expression. And this would be, if it wasn’t so fucking stupid.


According to Spiked, Cambridge is ranked “amber” (or having “chilled free speech through intervention”). I clicked on the Cambridge page to see what exactly it was that caused the rating, and the first piece of evidence was the University’s own prohibitions on sending offensive emails. Now, as someone who was a victim of a prolonged campaign of email harassment last year, that drove me to the brink of a mental breakdown, I can’t really see how, in that case, it was their right to send me daily death threats. The second thing flagged up here is the the computing services’ prohibition on accessing porn…which leads me to genuinely question if Spiked has confused freedom of expression with, um, wanking?

More disturbingly, CUSU’s anti sexual harassment policy is flagged. Now, I’m pretty interested in my freedom of expression, but I think I missed the memo where we, as a society had decided that suddenly catcalling, making unwelcome sexual invitations and HARASSMENT was a fundamental right of individuals in a democratic society, so key to our identity as free beings that JS Mill would jump out of his grave and personally defend it to the death, while presumably asking nearby women to show him their tits.

Scrolling through the Spiked rankings, I found myself completely perplexed. I could find no reason for why trans rights policies were enough to warrant cries of censorship, or why people suddenly have a god given right me death threats on Twitter because they didn’t like my piece about Germaine Greer. It seemed to have utterly no reference point in reality, but to be the paranoid ramblings of an idiot for whom “freedom of speech” was some sort of shield, to ward away monsters, though the monsters in this case appeared to be women, LGBT people, survivors of sexual violence, and people who might object to you using Pornhub in the computer room.
Debates about free speech are never far away in Cambridge. Whether it’s because the Union has invited someone unpleasant, or because a fascist is speaking in town, every single year I’ve been here there have been arguments, articles and angry Facebook comment threads about freedom of speech. So let’s just get back to principles, shall we: freedom of speech is, in essence, the right to speak freely without censorship. Fine. However it is conceived as a way of protecting individuals from higher authority, in most cases, the state. It does not guarantee you the right to be listened to, the right to a privileged platform upon which to speak (possibly surrounded by high fences) or the right to know that you can say whatever you like and not expect people to get mad, call you an idiot, or even organise a demo against you. The reason we have a concept, both in morality and in law, of “hate speech” is because we acknowledge that there should be limits on free speech, because words have an impact. Violence can be verbal as well as physical.

The highlighting, throughout the Spiked report, of “safe spaces” policies and the like is hugely disturbing to me. Safe spaces policies exist because we have to live in the real world, and the real world is not some idealised fantasy land where we’re on some level playing field, and no one has suffered any sort of discrimination due to being the wrong colour, or being attracted to the wrong sex. Having a “safe space”, whether it is in a campus SU meeting or at a demonstration or whatever is a great aid to freedom of speech. It allows for those who are in oppressed groups to speak freely, without fear of being drowned out by more privileged voices. Yes, I am acutely aware of the irony of me saying this, using my privileged position as a white straight boy, privileged enough to be given the platform to say this in a student newspaper. But it does aggravate me, at a time when true free speech is under threat, whether by extremist groups or by government legislation (*cough Theresa May cough*) that Spiked is blaming some of the very tools for empowering people to speak for limiting free speech.

I can’t help but feel that Spiked’s definition of freedom of speech is really something else. It’s the right to say whatever you want without fear of consequence, whether that’s degrading to someone, whether it’s sexist, homophobic, racist, transphobic, or just vile. We live in an unequal world, ladies and gentlemen, and by attacking the structures that are meant to counterbalance that, Spiked is really just trying to engage in its own form of silencing. They aren’t after freedom of speech. They are after the freedom to be a complete dick..

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No, it’s not about censorship – some thoughts on being an ally.

I’ve been meaning to write some stuff about what it is to be a good “ally” to oppressed groups for a while now, but I’ve lacked focus for the topic. Luckily, or, rather, unluckily, I had a rather tedious discussion with someone recently, who suggested that he as a straight cis-male was being “censored” by feminists and gay people because he was not allowed to take part in “women’s only” or “lgbt only” discussion. The fact that people couldn’t appreciate that he was trying to be helpful was, he said, an impingement on his freedom of speech. At about this point in the discussion, I had to give up listening because he then went onto make some derogatory comments about feminist and lgbt friends being “authoritarian” and “elitist”. I did manage to zone in again long enough for him to say “But I’m not sexist!” before I became distracted by a passing butterfly.

Ok, I am somewhat exaggerating the encounter. But the idea he put forward stuck in my mind, because sadly when put on the spot I couldn’t explain why he was wrong, why being an ally who respected the fact that oppressed groups might not want to spend all of their time educating you, or including you in their every discussion, wasn’t about limiting your free speech, or censorship. Luckily, however, the conversation did give me a chance to write down some of my thoughts on being an ally that have been meandering about in the back of my mind, so huzzah for the silver lining. Since this is an important issue, and one which I think quite a few of you might want to discuss, I have re-enabled comments for this post only (I suspended them after receiving online abuse, see my last post for more details). Comments will be moderated before appearing, so *hopefully* I can avoid having to go through the horrible online abuse again. Hopefully.

I have to admit that I have some sympathies for the guy I was speaking to. He was clearly well meaning; I think he just wanted to help oppressed groups, but stumbled over how best to do it. And it isn’t easy, if you’re just coming to a world where suddenly you have to be extra conscious of behaviour you might well have previously taken for granted. All allies have been there, at some point. I’d be lying if I said I had a perfect recipe for being an ally. I would like to think I’m an OK ally to LGBT+, female and BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) friends. I guess you’d have to ask said friends if they agreed with me or not. What I can do, in the scope of this post, is try to think about some of boundaries of being an ally, and give a few examples of behaviour, which, while well meaning, might actually do more harm than good.

Let’s consider two situations. Let’s assume you are like me: a white-looking (I’ll explain more about why I identify this way below), cis, straight male. Let’s imagine that you see, say, a member of the EDL harassing a gay friend of yours in the street. Let’s then imagine you overhear a group of BME friends discussing, say, doing an awareness raising campaign about casual racism, for which they only want BME students to be involved. Now, which of these situations is it best to intervene in? I think it’s fairly clear what you’d do in the first one – you step up and defend your friend, you take on the homophobe, you support someone, you be, quite simply, an ally in the face of very direct oppression. Easy enough. But what about the second one? Would you go over to the BME students and say “I think I should be involved in your BME only campaign!”

The reason why I wouldn’t want to get involved in, let’s say, a women’s only space, is because I wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I may have read – it feels like – all the feminist theory in the world, I may be able to explain all of these complex notions of identity and sexuality; I may be able to bore your socks off by giving an overview of post-structuralist notions of the lived body…but I’m not a woman. I don’t self define as female. I have, to be honest, no accurate idea of what it is like to be female. I have my guesses, I suppose, but I choose not to engage in a women’s only space or discussion because I’d probably sound like an idiot. It would be like me trying to engage in a high level debate about chemistry with a scientific background based entirely on binge watching four or so seasons of Breaking Bad. I would have no point of reference. And, most likely, I would annoy the hell out of the people trying to use a space productively if I came charging in, on my white horse of being a nice guy, and tried to say I knew what was best.

It doesn’t remotely offend me that there are women’s only space, queer only spaces and so on. Why should it? What should I expect, that those pesky women/gays are moaning about me behind my back? So let them. They have the right to do so, and to be honest, it’s their party. Opting out of those discussions isn’t censorship in the slightest. It’s me accepting that I lack the lived experience to really be able to contribute to those spaces, and if I tried I’d probably just mess it up for everyone.

I can’t help but feel like the kind of men who dislike women’s only spaces, say, might want to think about how certain they are about their ideas. By which I mean – to suggest that you understand how it is to be an oppressed woman better than a woman means you are either a) overly full of yourself or b) God. If you are the latter, fair play to you. You can do whatever you want. Also,  that would mean God reads my blog. Boom!

In fact, I would suggest that by trying to force yourself into those spaces, you are impinging on the freedom of speech of others. And it’s a freedom which is hard fought for, and for you to blunder into it, unwelcome, is harmful to say the least. It isn’t about being exclusive – there’s plenty of stuff you can do to be, say, a good feminist ally, or pro-feminist, or male feminist or whatever term you chose. So many of my female friends have come back from women’s only events and discussion feeling boyant and happy. They talk about how amazing it is to speak frankly without fear of male judgement,  unintentional or otherwise. And I’m happy for them – it’s great they can have that space!  If I were to then say “Oh, but what about letting men in your spaces? What about the men?!?!” Would be insulting. The beauty of having a women’s only space, or a bme only space, is that if gives those people a chance to just…be. Be honest and happy and have excellent chats. Endorsing that idea doesn’t mean endorsing seperatist politics. It means giving others a bit of breathing room. What’s so wrong about that?

 A common argument made by wannabe allies seeking to get into safe spaces is that they want to be educated. Which is totally fair enough as a desire, but the wrong method entirely. I don’t think it is the job of an oppressed minority to educate you. A certain amount of self-education is required. In the argument I alluded to at the start of this post, my companion said he wanted in on women’s only spaces so he could learn more about feminism. I suggested he might want to have a quick google about feminist issues; I suggested a few excellent and clear little books he might want to have a browse through. Needless to say, he didn’t. The unspoken expectation was that he expected the women in that space would immediately sit him down and bring him up to speed. Which, I think, is a bit arrogant. To go back to my analogy of the science debate, that’s sort of like me walking into the Royal Society of Chemistry and demanding to be taught the periodic table, and, when they quite justifiably say “No, we’ve got other things to do,” to head to the nearest wifi hotspot and have a go at them.

If you are a man who wants to get involved in feminism, there’s loads you can do without invading others spaces. You could set up an anti-sexist discussion group, do a bit of reading around the topic, help out with solidarity events for things like Reclaim the Night (on this note, I was hugely proud of this year’s solidarity event – unexpectedly, it turned out to be one of the most powerful experiences of my time at Uni). And perhaps, on an individual basis, your feminist friends might be up for a coffee and a chat about gender politics 101. But if you want that to happen, you need to pick your moments.

To be honest, I think the best thing allies can do is listen to the people they claim to support. Again, that’s not censorship or taking away your free speech – its accepting that you (in all likelihood) don’t know what its like to be a woman, or gay, or bme, or disabled and the kind of things you might well take for granted may actually be huge privileges for those in oppressed groups.

Earlier, I alluded to myself as “white-looking,” rather than white. I am mixed race; my mother and her family are Indian, and my father’s family are English. I don’t, however, think of myself as BME because my skin is closest to “white” and I can “pass” as white. I could count the times I have been on the receiving end of racial abuse on one hand – which, sadly, puts me in a much better position to my BME friends. It also, from the perspective of allyship (allihood? Not sure of the correct term) I don’t feel comfortable getting as intimately involved because for me, my race is not a site of oppression. I need to learn more about what it is to be openly “non-white” in a racially inequal society. Perhaps my friends will say I’m being overly hesitant about this, but it is what I feel most comfortable doing.

So, in a nutshell, being an ally isn’t about censorship – its about sensitivity. It isn’t about freedom of speech, it’s about respecting the freedom of speech of others. It’s not about oppressed groups educating you 24/7, it’s about you doing a self amount of self education.

Sadly, this probably isn’t going to be a completely comprehensive guide to being an ally. I never thought it would. Thoughts and comments (non-abusive, please) welcome.