The center has shifted in the debate over last week’s Observer letter. What was once an argument about grave human rights abuses against trans people and sex workers has now become an argument about grave abuses against Peter Tatchell, mostly between him and him. I had no intention of writing another word on this; but then I read Peter’s self-defense. It’s headlined “Peter Tatchell: Twitter mob who vowed to kill me over transgender letter have it all wrong.”
This was strange. I’ve heard warnings of “killer trans people” from Turkish police trying to justify torture; never from a human rights activist before. So I spent a few hours searching on Twitter for Tweets containing Peter’s name plus any of a thesaurus of threats (“murder,” “kill,” “beat,” “stab,” etc.). I also searched for a variety of Anglo-Saxon terms of abuse.
First finding: this “Twitter storm” was maybe not so stormy. Peter laments that “I received 4,000 to 5,000 mostly hostile comments” on Twitter, “from Saturday [February 14] to Monday [February 16].” An advanced search on Twitter uncovers all the Tweets sent to and from @PeterTatchell during February 14 – 17 (that’s one extra day). By my count — my eyes are misty– there were only 2621, of which 174 were Peter’s own. Many of the rest had nothing to do with the Observer letter. Perhaps 2000 did, over the four days.
Second finding: this “Twitter mob” was no mob. So far as I see, Peter got one Tweet that contained threatening language; it’s the one he’s cited and retweeted everywhere.
That Tweet is disturbing. I’d support Peter if he reported it to the police. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a clear threat — it’s riffing abusively off Peter’s use of the “MURDER of trans people” and his implication that trans activists didn’t care enough about their own, an assertion that infuriated many. The Tweeter seems to be a nasty kid (a self-described “Marxoteen”). Somebody else advised Peter:What’s also important is that this Tweet was a complete outlier. I saw no other message that could be taken as threatening (nor has Tatchell cited any). (Again, all Tweets to and from Peter during the period are here; I encourage others to analyze them in detail.) Some Tweets tried to start a dialogue, some tried to explain why others were angry, some were critical, some raised questions of identity no doubt destined to discomfit Peter, but most were civil and none were menacing. These were typical:
Only a few Tweets used language I might find abusive:
It’s disconcerting to find several hundred Tweets clogging your notifications, but volume isn’t the same thing as violence or abuse. I generally agree with trans activist Sarah Brown, who wrote Peter:
There was no trans “Twitter mob” threatening to kill Tatchell. What is clear is that Peter turned to the media to create the belief that there was. And mainly he went to the right-wing media, because they loathe trans people anyway. On Monday Milo Yiannopoulos at the far-right website Breitbart Tweeted:
(A commenter below notes that Yiannopolous was one of the wannabe-jock jerks who last year fanned up Gamergate and its misogynistic, anti-feminist vitriol. He wrote “column after column slamming feminists” and “sociopathic” women gamers — making him an odd partner for Tatchell, but a productive place to seek support.) Later that day Breitbart published its article claiming Tatchell was being “persecuted” by the “vocal, and vicious,” “increasingly shrill and intolerant transgender lobby.” On Thursday Brendan O’Neill in the Spectator upped the transphobia, warning that the “grandfather of gay rights” was under assault from “vicious, narcissistic cowards,” “self-styled queers and gender-benders” who “went berserk,” a “petulant mob of moaners … hurling abuse.” And of course O’Neill, like Peter, said they were ungrateful. Tatchell’s
risk-taking and street-fighting over 40-odd years helped to secure their liberation, to create a society in which they could live and speak freely. And how do they repay him? By tweeting their fantasises [sic] about him being murdered for being a ‘fucking parasite’.
That’s characteristic of Tatchell: when a person or group offends his amour-propre, he turns to the media to make them sorry. Using a single Tweet to discredit trans activists in general, however, shreds the claim to be an “ally.” Instead, Tatchell consciously strengthened gendered prejudices against trans people as hysterical, shrill, and dangerous. Sara Ahmed, in a thoughtful post last week that I’ve cited earlier, predicted exactly what he did:
Those who are oppressed – who have to struggle to exist often by virtue of being a member of a group – are often judged as the oppressors. … The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. … These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful antiracist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. …
Of course people protested against this letter. It is deeply offensive in so many ways. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But this will happen quickly …: those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.
And of course the opponents of trans people’s identities and rights took their cue:
I’ve gotten a small but significant number of threats in my life. I’ve been a public voice on LGBT rights in a variety of places where the rights and their claimaints were violently despised — Romania in the early 90s, for instance, or Egypt now; threats go with the territory. Much more comparable to this kerfluffle was the flurry of opposing e-mails I got about a post on sex work a while back. Some of these raised important questions, most were no more angry than your average letter to the editor, a very few were abusive, and one — which stood out — said I should be “disemboweled”: “I want you to die in agony feeling the blood run down your thighs the way it runs between the thighs of a woman who has been raped by 27 johns in a single night …” There’s a certain kind of pseudo-human rights talk that imaginatively colonizes the experience of victimhood, like mystics meditating on the wounds of Christ. It’s distasteful, particularly when it’s used to tag you as a supposed abuser. But I didn’t assume this was representative of all sex work opponents, or radical feminists, or feminists in general, or people with Earthlink accounts, or Vermonters, or any other group identity I could have extracted from the e-mail. Now I see: I don’t dramatize myself enough. I should have run to the press with an op-ed saying, “I forgive the radical feminists who want to disembowel me.” I do forgive radical feminists who want to disembowel me. I just don’t think there are any.
One more thing. That phrase “fucking parasite” turned up amid my search results in one other place. A week before this controversy started, Tatchell Tweeted a complaint about why Muslims weren’t protesting the right things (not unlike his lament that trans people were ignoring murders of trans people). A Muslim woman responded to him. A nasty troll — prone to obscenity, misogyny, and racist browbeating — then intervened in Tatchell’s defense with a slew of Islamophobic messages. Tatchell was copied on all these; but he didn’t raise a keystroke on the woman’s behalf, neither to demur nor or to reproach the racist. He stayed indifferently silent, even at the culmination, when the guy shouted she was a “fucking parasite cunt”:
NOTE: I’ve updated this post twice since it was published: once, to add information about a Breitbart editor to which I was directed by a commenter; and a second time to include, and explain, a link to the Twitter search results.
In long years of human rights work, I’ve seen plenty of hatred inculcated and discrimination enforced; but I can’t think of anyone more fitting the profile of les damnés de la terre than trans people and sex workers. Bearers of those identities (of course they often intersect) risk arrest almost daily across nine-tenths of the globe; police, if they don’t throw them in prison, can shake them down or rape them with impunity; on streets or in private places violence menaces their bodies constantly; the media mocks them, mutes them, fetishizes them, but mostly vilifies them; stigma, chasing them through life, bars them from jobs or homes or education; they die because health care systems ignore their needs; they die because people slaughter them. Why? Why are they hiding their lights under a bushel? For in fact, trans folk and sex workers are probably the most powerful people on the planet. They submit pliantly to these indignities in modesty or masochism, like Clark Kent letting bullies rough him up in front of Lois Lane; but with one flex of their superstrength they could blow us all to smithereens. Professors at world-famous universities, columnists in major newspapers, politicians, novelists, heads of NGOs all cower at the wrath of the raging sex worker with her scything fingernails, and tremble like skittish jellyfish at the earthquake clack of a trans woman’s heel. It just shows: things aren’t always what they seem.
This, I’ve learned from the hoopla over a recent letter to the UK Observer: “We cannot allow censorship and silencing.” Signed by dozens of those professors, columnists, and leaders, it says that sex workers (whom it calls “the sex industry”) and trans people (Beatrix Campbell, the screed’s lead author, has termed them “transgender vigilantes”) are behind “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed ‘transphobic’ or ‘whorephobic.’” They scheme “to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists.”
These tactics [are] illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying. We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.
What’s most horrifying is: some trans people and sex workers answered. They pointed out that the people behind the letter have their own history of silencing sex workers and trans people. (Just one example: Campbell herself proposes that the UK’s National Union of Students should remove trans women – who practice “cultural conservatism and anatomical violence” — from its women’s sections and services. She’s outraged that the Union’s “solidarity does not extend to women who feel unsettled by the presence of people who used to be men in women-only spaces and services.”) Saying back-at-you like that, of course, censors and silences even more. These vigilantes prove the point! Some of the letter’s signatories had to endure the monstrous indignity of people Tweeting at them. Two days after the letter appeared, the right-wing media giant Breitbart bore the headline:
Persecuted, mind you. Never mind trans people imprisoned or sex workers raped: This is what a victim looks like. The evidence? Tatchell (whom Breitbart called “an unlikely conservative hero … with his views on extremist Islam”) “received ‘100s of hate mails’” for signing the letter. That’s how the worst regimes, Egypt and North Korea and Iran, abuse their most obstreperous dissidents to break them: They send them e-mails. I’m sure Peter Tatchell tried to withstand the torture, but everybody cracks. Lest anyone think Breitbart was exaggerating these brutalities, Tatchell himself tweeted his agreement:
Cyberbullying is real. Yes, some people’s careers or livelihoods have been damaged by Twitter storms. But none of this letter’s signatories have suffered in the slightest. Tweets have not yet forced Peter Tatchell’s employer, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, to dismiss Peter Tatchell. Not everyone lets insults feed their self-pity. (I’ve faced online vitriol too. Last year, for instance, I helped organize a Twitter campaign to support Amnesty International’s emerging stance on sex work; a whirlwind of radical-feminist Tweets called me a “pimp.” I was annoyed. I wasn’t “persecuted.”) Most Tweets I’ve seen in this brouhaha were questions or criticisms, not “bullying.” Yet one trans person got attacked for “verbal violence” just for posting this:
As someone else tweeted to Tatchell:
As Sara Ahmed explained in an excellent rumination on the controversy,
The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. … These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful antiracist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. … We need to hear the constant stream of antitrans statements as a “chip, chip, chip” that has violent wearing effects. Any feminism that participates in this chipping away is not a feminism worthy of that name.
Of course people protested against this letter. It is deeply offensive in so many ways. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But … those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.
Is anything about the Observer letter true? Is “free speech” under threat? The letter cited exactly four alleged cases where “transgender vigilantes” and the “sex industry” shut down speech.
FIRST: The most ambiguous incident is “The fate of Kate Smurthwaite’s comedy show, cancelled by Goldsmith’s College in London last month.” Smurthwaite, a stand-up comic, is also a sex-work eradicationist; she thinks prostitution should be wiped out. What happened to her Goldsmith’s gig is in no way clear. Smurthwaite says it was stopped by pro-sex-work feminists (or, as she prefers it, pimps and punters). But — I get this from her own blog — she has only one bit of evidence anybody opposed her: a message she saw on the Web, from a feminist student at another university, suggesting a picket. (It proposed a protest, not canceling the show. The moniker’s blacked out by me.)
In fact, the University’s student Feminist Society had voted 70-30 to co-host her show. There were no threats. The head of the Comedy Society, the student group that was her main sponsor, writes that “One [Feminist Society] member suggested a counter event for those who didn’t want to see Kate. This member assured me it wouldn’t be a picket, but just a different gathering at a different venue.” The dire warnings of disaster came solely from Smurthwaite herself (she “let the organisers know that I thought there was a risk of a protest or of people coming along to the show with the specific aim of disrupting it or arguing with me”). Meanwhile, nobody was buying tickets. The Comedy Society president says, “we were planning to go ahead with the gig until Kate told me 24 hours before that there was likely to be a picket … I couldn’t verify this. Up to this point we had only sold 8 tickets so I decided to pull the plug.” It’s hard to avoid suspicion that Smurthwaite, faced with an underselling show, avoided that embarrassment by arranging her own cancellation. She certainly got free publicity galore, tweeting:
Rupert Myers writes for the Telegraph (in an article quite sympathetic to other censorship claims):
A comedy society was going to hold an event, it received tepid response, and it decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle … “No platform” is a dangerous approach to controversial ideas … but this incident was more like “no interest.”
SECOND: The letter says, “Last month, there were calls for the Cambridge Union to withdraw a speaking invitation to Germaine Greer.” Greer, a writer I’ve found alternately inspiring and infuriating, has strong opinions against trans women: “ghastly parodies,” she’s called them. She regards them as gay men (never mind who they might be attracted to); she’s campaigned to get a trans woman ousted from a Cambridge University women’s fellowship for not being female; she allegedly has refused to contribute to anthologies or appear on platforms if certain trans people are represented. Nobody wrote open letters about that.
This time, the Cambridge Union Society invited her; in a special snub, they scheduled her speech at the same time as a regular drinks event held for the Union’s LGBT+ group. Students asked the Union to rescind the invitation; they declined. The LGBT+ group then set up a counter-event “to celebrate and discuss the history of trans feminism, and think through how feminism can be made more trans-inclusive.” That sounds like just the kind of “democratic political exchange” the letter signatories claim they want. At Greer’s own talk, according to the Cambridge student newspaper, ”there were few signs of protest except for a few LGBT+ representatives handing out leaflets at the door.” Greer had her platform, and urged an end to surgeries and medical treatments for trans people during transition — she denounced them as “unethical.” No one got silenced or censored here.
THIRD: Most absurdly: The letter says “the Green party came under pressure to repudiate the philosophy lecturer Rupert Read after he questioned the arguments put forward by some trans activists.” (What Read wrote, and later apologized for, was that trans women are “a sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman.”). This is duplicitous. Trans activists didn’t react because Read’s a philosopher, but because he is a Green Party candidate for Parliament; they pressed the Greens to take a stand. As a politician, Read’s thoughts have implications. How would he and the Green Party vote on revising the UK’s Gender Recognition Act, for instance? Are political parties exempt from saying what they believe? When a Republican running for the US Senate alleged that women survivors of “legitimate rape” don’t get pregnant, feminists across the country demanded the Republican Party declare whether it agreed. Now the feminists behind the Observer letter are saying that was an assault on poor Todd Akin’s freedom. This is political insanity.
FOURTH: Oh, yes, “The feminist activist and writer Julie Bindel has been ‘noplatformed’ by the National Union of Students for several years.” Bear with me. One must draw breath before dealing with Julie Bindel; I’ll go there in a moment.
But consider the facts: trying to establish an evil sexworker-trans axis against free speech, Campbell and Tatchell and the rest found virtually nothing. The basis for the letter is BS. What is true is the level of sheer self-contradictory hypocrisy in their claims.
There are ample examples of this hypocrisy, but I’ll just focus on a few. One of the letter’s signatories (gay novelist Paul Burston) and one person it’s about (Julie Bindel) were among 12 gay activists who wrote a statement in 2011 that was a prime case of “no-platforming.” They demanded the East London Mosque “stop allowing its premises to be used to promote gayhate campaigns” by banning a list of speakers they helpfully provided. Peter Tatchell wasn’t party to that statement but had long campaigned against the East London Mosque. In a separate article the next day, he complained the mosque “never apologised for hosting homophobic hate preachers and have never given any assurances that they will not host them again,” though Tatchell had “publicly demanded that they do so.”
This is far severer “censorship” than those elusive proto-protests against Kate Smurthwaite that roused Tatchell’s and Campbell’s ire. These statements didn’t call for cancelling shows or lectures at a university, events where a diverse audience might take offense; they intruded on places of worship, sites particular to a community, institutions in no way obligated to represent opposing points of view. This is the kind of thing you can only advocate about Islam, because in the UK it’s known to be a public menace, requiring vigilant surveillance. Feminists complain, rightly, at the Catholic Church’s militance against reproductive rights; but imagine the uproar if they insisted that it ban all anti-abortion priests from its altars. With Islam, it’s open season.
Their rationale for this remarkable demand was the same one the Observer letter mocks when trans people use it: These speakers make us feel unsafe. They opportunistically exploited a moral panic over an alleged burst of homophobic violence in East London, coupled with the trial of a Muslim man for putting up stickers that read “Gay Free Zone.” (Bindel and Burston dubbed his solitary stickering a “homophobic hate campaign.”) The excellent blogger How Upsetting noted that “Homophobic crime has decreased in Hackney.”
And before anyone tells you that this means nothing because it’s a huge figure nonetheless, the 47 homophobic crimes the MET reports to April 2011 in Hackney compares with 317 racist and religious hate crimes, 130 rapes and 5900 cases of “violence against the person.”
No evidence suggested a link between hate crimes, stickers, and the East London Mosque — which had condemned both. The writers virtually admitted banning the speakers would have no effect: “It is doubtful that many gaybashers are regular mosque attendees.” And many of the “hate preachers” were accused on flimsy pretexts. Tatchell’s article condemned one preacher, Uthman Lateef, as “virulently homophobic.” The joint statement gave more detail on Lateef,
who even hosted a gala dinner to highlight the Mosque’s supposed commitment to combatting homophobia earlier this year [but] is on record as saying to students at nearby Queen Mary University of London in 2007: “We don’t accept homosexuality… we hate it because Allah hates it”.
Read that again. Four years ago, he said “We don’t accept homosexuality”; but this year, he hosted an anti-homophobia event to make amends. Yet that’s not enough; he’s marked for life, and we’re going to get him banned not just from universities, but in his own community. Try doing that to Germaine Greer! This is “illiberal bullying” far beyond anything Tatchell and Burston piously decried in the Observer. Except here, Tatchell and Burston are doing it.
This censoriousness is ubiquitous in the UK, with nary an open letter against it. Earlier in 2011, for instance, Tatchell tried to no-platform “Muslim fundamentalist preachers who advocate the criminalisation of homosexuality”: “The Ibis Hotel group,” which was hosting a Muslim conference, “should not facilitate speakers who promote homophobic discrimination and violence. They should cancel this booking.” The charge of “promoting violence” is elastic. After all, Uthman Lateef’s alleged statement “We don’t accept homosexuality” hardly incites anything specific. Even preachers who endorse the shari’a punishment of death for proven male homosexual acts (very unlikely to be enacted in the UK) are not exactly urging violence on the streets. But you have to wonder. That call is barbarous — but should only homosexuals be exempt from execution? Are we gays so special? Isn’t the death penalty always a barbarous human rights abuse? Shouldn’t Tatchell, a human rights activist, demand all death penalty supporters be barred from speaking, anywhere? That would ban Priti Patel, David Cameron’s Treasury Minister, who wants to bring back hanging. (OK, she’s brown, go ahead and ban her.) It would ban all the other Tory MPs who tabled a bill to the same end. It would ban almost every visiting US politician, from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton. Tatchell and Burston should get busy writing the open letter that calls for no-platforming these people, so that Burston and Tatchell can then write the open letter that opposes it.
Then there’s Tatchell’s own record. Peter dislikes criticism. (He calls it “smears.”) In fact, he thinks criticizing him is censorship. (“The real censorship is by my critics. Some of them are posting entirely false allegations, often on closed lists that do not allow me to post my side of the story.”) When people criticize him, he tries to shut them up by threatening to sue. English libel law, which until revised in 2013 put the full burden of proof on the defendant and was among the most repressive in the world, handed him a potent weapon. In 2009, he threatened to sue a small feminist press (the aptly named Raw Nerve Books) that had published one of the UK’s first anthologies on race and queerness. An article in the book, by three academics of color, criticized Tatchell’s connections with the Islamophobic right. Tatchell forced the press to withdraw the whole anthology. Humiliatingly, he compelled them to publish a pages-long “Apology and Correction to Peter Tatchell,” written by Peter Tatchell, that praised Peter Tatchell’s career in wildly adulatory terms — a weird, narcissistic exhibition. (Tatchell’s paean to Tatchell is now only available on his own site, since the press is out of business.) “A really amazing book is being censored,” another academic wrote: “Meanwhile the authors’ reputations are themselves besmirched.”
The same year, Tatchell went after me. He threatened to sue Routledge, which had published a peer-reviewed and factual article I wrote, critiquing claims he made about Iran. (The article is here.) Then in early 2010, I stupidly sent an email to a third party in which I wrote, offhand, that “Tatchell makes up his own facts when the existing ones don’t suit.” (That’s a paraphrase; here in Cairo I don’t have the text in front of me. It’s also the truth.) The recipient inadvertently forwarded these unwise words to Peter. Tatchell leapt on them, and, since I’d sent the offending missive from a work address, threatened to sue Human RIghts Watch. HRW was eventually constrained to sign an apology which Tatchell couched in the most sweeping terms possible, a decision to which I reluctantly assented to keep their UK work free from his legal harassment. Tatchell then used that apology to force Routledge to concede, and pulp not just the article but the entire volume in which it had appeared.
Nor did it stop there. In 2011 I forwarded to an LGBT e-mail listserve, without comment, two blog posts by other people — both mainly about the Middle East but containing critiques of Tatchell’s work. (The e-mail’s here.) The next day, one “Patrick Lyster-Todd, Lieutenant Commander Royal Navy,” who was also “the acting General Manager for the Peter Tatchell Foundation,” wrote to the Dean of Harvard Law School, where I was a Visiting Fellow, with a veiled threat of libel action unless I were fired. Legal threats against smart lawyers are ill-advised, and the school told him (I’m paraphrasing here too) to bugger off. In 2013, Peter wrote to a friend of Hillel Neuer, a pro-Likud propagandist some of whose misrepresentations of Egyptian human rights activists I had detailed. Tatchell urged Neuer to take “legal action” against me. (This time the e-mail was inadvertently forwarded to me. Be careful with those keyboards, people.) Tatchell has an odd, obsessive fixation on me, which is a personal issue. His use of a draconian libel law to shut down speech is not. He now hypocritically claims (in Twitterese) “I defend precious human right of free speech, except 4 violent incites.” But that’s not true. He defends precious human right when it is good 4 him. Criticize, & he will make u sorry 4 it.
There are standards. See?
1) It’s utterly wrong if trans or sex worker activists no-platform speakers with transphobic or eradicationist opinions.
2) It’s absolutely right if gay activists no-platform speakers with homophobic opinions.
3) It’s wonderful if one particular gay activist uses the law against anybody criticizing his opinions.
But let’s face it, these are only local hypocrisies. The great dishonesty is claiming you’re being “silenced,” while trans and sex worker activists have mostly been the ones repression stifles and gags. This history stretches back to the sex wars in feminism that raged from the 1970s. When Barnard College held a famous, feminist sexualities conference in 1982, other feminists — fulminating at open discussions of porn and sex work — charged it was a coven of child pornography, in a furious push to shut it down. Trans researcher Natacha Kennedy wrote this week:
The so-called “feminists” who wish to initiate a debate about my existence have glossed over the nature and history of this “debate.” This is a debate that has raged since the early 1970s and which quickly became violent. … [Feminist theorist] Janice Raymond publish[ed] a book in which she suggested that people like myself should be “morally mandated out of existence.” She also helped the Reagan government to withhold gender reassignment healthcare from trans people.…
[T]hose transphobic “feminists” who wish to debate my existence are a group that has a long and sordid history of silencing and intimidating trans people. Indeed I invariably attract quite extreme personal abuse online whenever I write something to counter what these transphobic “feminists” have written. They provide no counter-argument, no engagement with the issues I raise, just abuse and occasionally threats. And I count myself lucky, others have been threatened with legal letters from solicitors trying to shut them up, some have had letters written to their employers, trying to get them sacked, in one instance a transphobic “feminist” even tried to intervene in someone’s medical treatment.
Cathy Brennan, a US lawyer, viciously harasses trans women through her website, Gender Identity Watch: in one case, she posted online the court docket information of a person trying to change her legal gender, and urged others to lobby the judge to deny her. Another, even more sadistic radical-feminist site “monitors” and outs trans youth, regularly posting names and photos of “who is transitioning.” Maybe these are marginal; maybe not. Their acts are more terrifying to their targets than anything Kate Smurthwaite underwent. Why isn’t Bea Campbell cooking up an open letter?
This month anti-sex work groups in the UK published a “Guide for Journalists Reporting on the Prostitution and Trafficking of Women,” written by (there you go again!) Julie Bindel. The book aims to discourage journalists from talking to or trusting sex worker activists: “How to identify the pro-prostitution lobby.” A recalcitrant reporter at a Stop Porn Culture conference last year wrote that “radical feminist Julie Bindel’s presentation on ‘the politics of the sex industry'” was “a succession of tabloid-style personal attacks on pro-sex industry activists, academics, escorts, and performers, complete with photos seemingly lifted without permission from their social-media profiles.” It’s a two-pronged media strategy: first, make sex workers invisible; if that fails, out them. Either way, you shut them up.
The whole point of the Observer letter is to bury these facts and this history. This controversy has been less about speech than about forgetting. I”m not sure anything can be learned from such an episode of erasures. But as I mulled on it, four thoughts flickered though.
First: Free speech is easy in principle and complicated in practice. It’s an absolute ideal (an ideology, I’d say, if the word weren’t so weighted): something people hold up and value and use to judge acts and situations. But everybody knows that absolute free speech — a cacophonic babel where everyone talks at once and everybody’s heard — doesn’t exist. (Twitter pretends to be that, hence some folks’ passion for it. But the point is precisely that with everyone on Twitter talking, most don’t get heard at all. And just try Tweeting if you live in Egypt and earn two dollars a day.)
There are always limitations, some necessary (climate-change denialists or creation scientists should not be attended to in University departments) and some unjust (why should a gigabyte of WiFi cost a day’s food?). We negotiate what “free speech” means in specific situations. We decide what limit we’ll contest, who we’ll pay attention to, who gets a lecture slot, who sits on a panel. And when we decide, others should be able to argue back. These negotiations always involve power. Power (“privilege” is the trendy term) is also never absolute. There are different kinds, and race, gender, knowledges, class all shape it differently. Everyone has power in some ways and spaces, and people who have a lot can always point to times and places where they have less (or more). It’s absurd to suppose that Germaine Greer has as much power as David Cameron. But it’s ridiculous to pretend that a few students protesting Germaine Greer have as much power as Germaine Greer. It’s demeaning to posit that academics and politicians and NGO heads are helpless victims in the face of street sex workers or trans women whom police freely abuse. It’s insulting to claim “persecution” because you got too many Tweets from people who actually know what persecution is.
Second: Universities are separate and special places for producing truth: unique sites where we negotiate what free speech means. They are not places of “democratic political exchange,” and they never have been (though there may be democratic spaces within them, the freest usually being ones students establish). People in universities spend much of their time and energy deciding who should get to speak, sometimes fine-tuning fairer procedures for decision. Then sometimes other people protest their decisions. These aren’t Platonic paradises where the free-speech ideal effortlessly becomes flesh.
Most obviously, faculties constantly decide what can be taught or not. No decent university will hire someone to spread creation science or Holocaust denial. The second offends a lot of people, the first probably doesn’t rouse real ire except among dinosaurs, but that’s not the criterion. Those opinions won’t get class time because they’re not true. Yet the decision about what’s true does involve power, and there are steady struggles over it. Vast Turkish massacres of Armenians during the First World War — the word “genocide” hadn’t been coined yet — are well-documented. Yet many scholars still minimize or ignore them. Bernard Lewis, the immensely powerful Middle East scholar much beloved of neoconservatives, is a genocide denier. There are probably Armenian right-wingers who would say this discrepancy is because the Jews have power and the Armenians don’t, but they’d be wrong. The problem is, rather, that the Turkish government has power and uses its weight to cover up the killings, while most European states that murdered Jews have, imperfectly, come to terms with their guilt. Many foreign historians working on Turkey succumbed to unsubtle pressure to steer clear of the genocide, because their access to institutions and archives was at stake. All this is shifting — partly because US conservatives are far less fond of Turkey; but also because Armenian activists have pushed, pressured, and sometimes protested to get their stories (and their ancestors’ stories) heard. Truth comes from negotiating such contests; it doesn’t descend immaculate from on high. Bernard Lewis is almost 100 now, and no one wants to trouble an old man, but if in his heyday Armenian groups had promised to shout him down in public till he changed his claims, I would have applauded. That would have been an opening of debate, not a closure.
Then there’s the part of the university not under the faculties’ direct control. Student union “no platform” policies are much fought over. Several things should be clarified. These are policies of student unions, not the university administration. Students vote on them. They identify certain groups or even people whom the union won’t admit to its platforms. Their origins lie in a long tradition of working-class struggles against fascism (UK student unions are unions, after all). The National Union of Students no-platforms the English Defence League and the British National Party, but also several Muslim groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir. Its LGBT section has voted to no-platform Julie Bindel.
No one — even among the advocates behind the Observer letter — seems to mind no-platforming fascists. Commentators are confused, though, over why fascists can be banned. Sarah Ditum, in an article defending Julie Bindel, claimed no-platform “was traditionally about rejecting the rhetoric of violence.” But surely the objection to fascism was less that it was violent than that it was fascism: racist, exclusionary. (Hizb ut-Tahrir is barred even though it has vowed a commitment to non-violence, and nobody on the right complained about that.)
Nick Cohen similarly contends that only ideas that “incite violence” should ever be no-platformed, anywhere. Yet – as the East London furor shows – very few who think this are willing to stick to any consistent or legal definition of “incitement”: that is, encouraging particular acts against particular people. Somebody saying “I don’t like you” is incitement enough in their minds. After all, Julie BIndel believes pornography, all pornography, incites (or is) violence. They use the incitement argument not as a heuristic tool, to winnow “good” speech from “bad” speech, but as an emotive spur, to whip up fear and anger against speech they don’t like.
In other words, hypocrisy once again riddles these arguments: No-platforming for thee, but not for me. But let’s admit two things. First, these student bans aren’t “censorship.” As trans activist Sarah Brown writes, “No platforming sounds terribly serious. In reality, it basically means, ‘we won’t invite this person to our stuff, and we won’t appear on the same platform as them.'” Having no platform at the student union doesn’t mean having no platform at all. There are other platforms in the university; there are platforms outside. Everyone has the right to seek a platform from which to speak; that doesn’t mean an absolute right to any platform in particular.
For student groups, no-platforming resolutions are a way of putting some opinions under the shadow of disapproval. I find no-platform distasteful, like most symbolic gestures. It gives people the warm feeling of fighting something, with little effort or impact at all. I think it should stop. But to confuse it with state suppression of opinion, with Iran or North Korea, is to lose all proportion.
Then: in our societies, groups censure or ostracise some opinions all the time. A great victory was won, in many places in the last 50 years, through the valor and vigilance of many movements. Some racist ideas became socially and politically unacceptable: not banned (though their expression is in some countries) but met with such disapproval as to disqualify you from public life. When a US politician shouts a racist slur, his career is over. Now there’s a steady struggle to bring other kinds of prejudice under the same penumbra. And gays and lesbians are at the fore, protesting and reviling. It’s like no-platforming, only played not in student unions but on larger fields. Getting the CEO of Mozilla fired because he fought gay marriage takes away a platform way bigger than Julie Bindel’s wildest dreams. Gay activists in the US, the UK, and elsewhere have militantly patrolled the limits of acceptable language and opinion. To tell trans people and sex workers that they can’t similarly fight back is, from this perspective, like saying gay rights are a settled issue, whereas their rights must stay open to debate. It’s the gays pulling up the drawbridge behind them. You’re surprised folks get angry?
I’m sometimes uneasy, even appalled about these wildfire campaigns (a clicktivist drive to fire a CEO is a diversion from fighting poverty or inequality), but they’re not “censorship.” Free speech is a struggle. Voices left inaudible (the powerless on one hand, the just-plain-wrong on another) are in constant contention with the ones behind the megaphones, to make themselves heard.
Much of the horror over who gives a lecture and who doesn’t draws on a fantasy version of how speech works. You’d think each of Earth’s six billion residents was guaranteed a speaking slot at Oxford each semester, and if one loses it, it’s censorship. It’s not. Each time a speaker is invited somewhere, it’s because somebody decided not to invite someone else. Usually these zero-sum contests are settled behind closed doors. But when a decision becomes public, the public can contest it. No university can hear all voices; the more discussion about which ones it will accomodate, the better. These arguments make that discussion open. They aren’t how free speech is suppressed. Often, they’re how it happens.
Third: What is censorship? The Observer letter leaves me hopelessly confused. Is it when you’re not invited to speak? When no one shows up when you speak? When someone protests your speaking? When somebody complains?
Censorship is none of these. Censorship is suppressing speech, usually by punitive or repressive force, with the intent to eliminate it altogether. People need to get their definitions straight. When a government closes a newspaper, jails a journalist, or passes an anti-pornography law, that’s censorship. When a person employs a draconian state law to threaten or silence speech, that’s censorship. (Peter Tatchell, with his exploitation of a grim libel law, is a censor.) If TV networks conspire to ban some opinion from the airwaves altogether, that’s censorship. Violence can be censorship. But protesting a program or demanding it be dropped is not censorship. Neither is picketing a lecture, or writing to a political party, or not being allowed on an e-mail listserve. You’re not being censored if you lose a platform and can find another: if the Guardian won’t publish you and the Independent will. The proliferating pseudo-dictionaries make it impossible to muster indignation against real censors.
Fourth. The one thing everybody in this controversy says is: they want more speech. Being human, they mostly don’t mean it. They want speech from those on their side, that’s all. But this does foreground the question of how we foster and further speech: how any of us, from polemicists to outside observers, can work so as to ensure that voices often relegated to silence are heard.
There is no easy answer, but I should say the beginning is: listen. And here I return to Tatchell, because what he’s written is instructive. Peter was hurt and indignant that trans people criticized him, because, as he kept saying, he’s fought for them for years. He’s right; he has. But as I keep saying to Peter — it’s one of the reasons he doesn’t like me — it’s not enough, and sometimes it’s not right, to fight for people. You have to be an ally, not a leader; to fight with them (at times, in all senses of the phrase); and you have to listen.
One reason trans people got angry at Peter in this twitter storm is that his reactions to criticism were infuriating. He patronized trans activists, accusing them of not caring about their own:
He accused trans people of ingratitude:
Many responded by asking what an ally is.
It all culminated with Tatchell claiming that he was simply a better trans activist than trans activists.
One demands gratitude not from equals, but from dependents. Tatchell might want to read yet another open letter: from Hannah Arendt to the French poet Jules Romains, after he claimed — at the height of Hitler’s war, in 1941 — that he had defended the Jews and they were ungrateful. (My thanks to Rahul Rao for pointing to this letter in this context, in his fine book Third World Protest.) Arendt reminded Romains that the Jews’ struggle was not just an adjunct to his own.
You complain in fact very loudly and articulately about the ingratitude of Jews for whom you have done so much…..
What concerns us Jews in all this and what makes us blush again for the hundredth time is our despairing question: Is our alternative truly only between malevolent enemies and condescending friends? Are genuine allies nowhere to be found, allies who understand, not out of either sympathy or bribery, that we were merely the first European nation on whom Hitler declared war? That in this war our freedom and our honor hang in the balance no less than the freedom and honor of the nation to which Jules Romains belongs? And that condescending gestures like the arrogant demand for gratitude from a protector cuts deeper than the open hostility of antisemites?
I want also to think about that BBC radio debate with Bindel.
Tatchell’s proud of the broadcast — he Tweeted about it repeatedly to critics. Hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine in 2007, it featured Bindel arguing that “sex change surgery” should be banned as “unnecessary mutilation.” Four respondents answered her: two well-known trans advocates — Stephen Whittle, a world-renowned expert on gender identity and the law, and Michelle Bridgman, a psychotherapist; Kevan Whylie, a clinician and expert on gender reassignment therapies; and Tatchell.
At the end, the audience was polled, and Bindel’s perspective lost. But what remains of the debate? A recording formerly at the BBC’s site is gone. Two main accounts survive online: Bindel’s and Tatchell’s. (The two, despite their differences, are friends). Bindel wrote in the Guardian:
It was one of the most challenging and stimulating debates I have taken part in. Not because the panel or the audience conceded much to my arguments, but because I was given a platform for my opinions … I was outvoted at the end of the debate, but I felt I had done my job. All I intended to do was to ask the questions, “Are we right to support sex change surgery, and is it right to apply a surgical solution to what I believe is a psychological problem?
She quotes none of her respondents. Meanwhile, Tatchell’s account is on his website. He quotes Bindel generously, and himself at even more length. Although he refers to the other participants in passing, including the two trans advocates, he mentions nothing that they said. As far as he’s concerned, it’s entirely a debate between himself and Bindel. He headlines his version: “Transsexualism – Bindel condemns, Tatchell defends.”
There you have it. First, that’s why I feel no sorrow when students no-platform Bindel. She has no lack of platforms; anyone who has the Guardian and the Royal Society of Medicine will never lack a platform. Second: who actually won? Maybe Tatchell, in his mind, but for trans people it may be more ambiguous; he buries them in that comma between “Bindel condemns, Tatchell defends.” Their lives were at issue, but he renders their voices irrelevant, lost. Supporting people starts with hearing them: otherwise, the helping hand can become an occupying force. The storm about “silencing” and “censorship” shouldn’t whirl that lesson to oblivion.
UPDATE only for those too obsessed by this issue to sleep: Peter Tatchell now says he has “proof” that Kate Smurthwaite was banned from Goldsmith’s.
He doesn’t. This all revolves around what Smurthwaite says on her own blog, which is confused to start with. But here’s the gist.
Smurthwaite posts just a snippet of an online chat with a member of Goldsmith’s Comedy Society, as follows. She doesn’t post the whole chat so we have no idea where this conversation went, but let’s assume this is the best evidence she’s got.
Now. Here is the safe-space policy of the Student Union at Goldsmith’s. And here’s what it says:
Racism, homophobia, biphobia, sexism, transphobia, disablism or prejudice based on age, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, gender presentation, language ability, immigration status or religious affiliation is unacceptable and will be challenged.
Well, that’s pretty sweeping, except it doesn’t mean anything. There’s a huge gap between saying something’s “unacceptable” and saying it “will be challenged.” There are neither penalties nor enforcement mechanisms, so evidently these kinds of speech are discouraged, not banned, but neither is there any real obligation to “challenge.” (“We refer to our ‘Safe Space Policy’ as a concept, not as a physical document,” the physical document says.) What’s clear in context is that the main target is things that students say to each other — offhand slurs, for instance. The idea is mainly to get students to be nice to each other. You couldn’t really use this to ban any speaker’s speech: just to ensure they get “challenged,” which could mean anything..
This is a terribly written document (sorry, “concept”). It doesn’t offer a basis for suppressing speech; it offers no guidance, period. I hope no other school has anything like it. Still, the exchange above isn’t sinister censorship. It’s comedy. You can see the poor fellow has no idea what the policy is (it neither “kinda” says you “can’t say” things nor mentions sex work). Smurthwaite immediately leaps to the conclusion that it’s a “pro-pimp” Bible, because it’s basically a blank on which she can write her prejudices, hatreds, fears. I have to say that if were a comedy society honcho, and a comic started claiming I wanted a “pro-pimp event,” I might assume this wouldn’t be a funny evening, and pull the plug.
The other bit of evidence seems to be this:
Let’s repeat: The person who told him there would be pickets outside the show was Smurthwaite herself, as she admits. And this was entirely based on a Twitter conversation between two persons that she saw online. Nobody was threatening to close her down, nobody was threatening violence. The threats, by Smurthwaite’s own account, came from Smurthwaite.
I still find the most plausible assumption to be that Smurthwaite inflated the “protests” because she didn’t want to perform with no audience; torpedoed her own gig; and has been milking the publicity. It’s also possible that the Comedy Society just decided she was a pain in the whatever, and looked for any excuse to cancel. If the Comedy Society didn’t want to pay for security, that’s its decision. But let’s also note that there is a right to peaceful protest, as Tatchell admits: