Freedom to speak? No-go areas and unsafe spaces

At the heart of the debate on free speech and censorship are contested understandings of where power resides. Where should the line be drawn?

Rahila Gupta
22 September 2015

Anxieties about the erosion of freedom of expression, that touchstone of democracy, have surfaced across the political spectrum – from the no-platforming of certain speakers by students’ unions in UK universities to the deadly serious consequences of standing up against religious forces internationally. But all of it is animated by underlying concerns about:  power and privilege; the inflated notion of offence; the limits to freedom of speech; state imposed versus peer imposed limits; what constitutes acceptable protest; and, less discussed but equally important, the role of the marketplace.

At the deadly end, we saw cartoonists being killed for their ‘Islamaphobic’ representations of Mohammad in the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo. We would have expected the condemnation of the killings to have been unconditional, yet many on the left preferred to focus on the racist content of the cartoons as if anything could explain the murders. Like many of the writers who boycotted the PEN awards ceremony where Charlie Hebdo received the Freedom of Expression Courage Award, they felt that, under the guise of free speech, this was one more assault on an already disempowered community.

Garry Trudeau, of Doonesbury fame, says critically of Charlie Hebdo that "Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable … . By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died." This is wrong on several counts. First of all, religious beliefs – like any other beliefs – are fair game. Secondly, we should not conflate religion with race, doing so is itself racist because it leaves no room for secular or devout Muslims who were not offended by those cartoons. And it is safe to conclude that the vast majority of Muslims who were offended by the cartoons would want no truck with the killers, AQAP, an off-shoot of Al Qaeda. It has created a situation where the threat of violent religious extremism has the power to quash all free speech through self-censorship. Thirdly, Trudeau turns the notion of hate speech on its head. It is a legal concept designed to protect vulnerable minorities from violence from, say, racists or homophobes stoked up by hate speech, not to cover violent retaliation by the armed wing of a minority community.  At the heart of this debate, are  contested understandings of where power resides.

Conway Hall London Thinks 10th Sept 2015 LR (6).jpg

Panellists at the Trigger Warning ! event at Conway Hall. Photo: Darren Johnson

The question of power between the ‘attacker’ and the ‘attacked’ also drives the momentum to create ‘safe spaces’ in universities. Conway Hall recently hosted a debate on free speech as part of its London Thinks series called Trigger Warning: Should Universities be intellectual 'safe spaces'? It promised to be an important moment to reflect on the ways in which limits were being imposed on freedom of speech by students in the name of ‘oppressed groups’ which has resulted in the no-platforming of speakers like Julie Bindel and comedians like Kate Smurthwaite for their allegedly ‘transphobic’ and ‘whorephobic’ views.

Bahar Mustafa (the Welfare and Diversity Officer of the Students’ Union at Goldsmith’s College) spoke in defence of their safe space policy, which aims to create ‘a space which is inclusive and supportive in which no forms of discrimination are tolerated.’ It is not a notion that anyone in the women’s movement would disagree with – such spaces guaranteed our autonomy and we flourished in them. But these were  political spaces created by a political movement not a space inside an institute of learning to be protected by an absence of opposing viewpoints. On closer analysis of Mustafa’s defence, it appears that the polarity between ‘challenger and challenged’ – acceptable positions in any debate – has been overblown into ‘attacker and attacked’ as a result of hypersensitivity to offence. A recent example of such sensitivity occurred when participants at a Students’ Union Women’s conference were asked to refrain from clapping because it causes anxiety in some people. Mustafa also made the extraordinary claim that ‘sex workers, transactivists and other marginalised groups don’t want their lives to be debated by people who don’t directly experience them’, calling to mind the cul-de-sac identity politics of the 1980s.

‘Whorephobic’ is an adjective attached to anyone who opposes the sex industry because it does profound violence to the women who work in it. To traduce this concern as 'whorephobic' is to signal that a legitimate discussion about the commodification of women' bodies is off-limits. Is it possible to offend or hurt ‘sex-workers’ by challenging their defence of the work they do when they brave verbal and physical assault from their punters on a regular basis?

‘Transphobic’ however cannot be lumped with 'whorephobic' – there are strong anti-trans views among some feminists which some argue are  an attack on who you are rather than what you believe in.  We should however be allowed to debate the fundamental questions that have been thrown up by transactivists, of what it means to be a woman and whether or not it sets back our feminist project without fear of giving offence - an issue I addressed in an earlier article on 50.50 Transgender: the challenge to feminist politics.  Equally I claim the right, even duty, to critique the burqa or the hijab for setting back feminism by suggesting that it is a woman's responsibility to dress in modest clothing in order to save her from men’s sexual aggression.

 A vociferous minority of transwomen do respond with an aggression that makes debate well-nigh impossible. I was scheduled to speak alongside Julie Bindel, and two transwomen, Sarah Brown and Lauren Harries on this issue at a conference at Queen Mary College last year which had to be cancelled because the prospect of violence was so high that the organisers were worried that their security arrangements would not be adequate. Despite the panel being carefully balanced, the protestors wanted Julie to be disinvited. Although she has apologised for her intemperate critique of transwomen in 2004, a blanket ban to prevent her from speaking on any issue at any university is still in existence. 

An excessively aggressive response was also very much in evidence when Beatrix Campbell and Deborah Cameron wrote to the Observer calling for an end to no-platforming as illiberal and undemocratic, especially in places like universities where students should benefit from a wide exchange of ideas. The letter – signed by about 120 people  – argued, ‘The feminists who hold these views (on the sex industry or transgender) 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.’ This did not stop some transactivists from bombarding signatories like Peter Tatchell, a well-known LGBT campaigner, and Mary Beard who faced a torrent of abuse on their twitter accounts on the grounds that the letter was transphobic. Both of them signed on freedom of speech grounds which was the main thrust of the letter. Tatchell received 5000 tweets, one of which said ‘I would like to tweet your murder you fucking parasite.’

When protest tips over into aggression, it loses its legitimacy as a freedom of speech tool, especially when we are engaging with our peers and not the state or the police. When the authorities fail to provide adequate security, usually on the grounds of affordability, we see the role of the marketplace in curbing our freedoms. Ever since universities started charging fees, students have been transformed into customers who demand bang for their buck and health and safety considerations appear to override political protest. The invitation to Kate Smurthwaite was withdrawn in the final analysis because the college was not prepared to provide security to police a picket line. Brendan O’Neill, Editor of Spiked, another panellist, faced the same problem at an Oxford Students’ Union meeting when he and another man were invited to discuss abortion! According to him ‘300 feminists threatened to turn up with instruments’ and resulted in a wealthy university like Oxford cancelling the event rather than paying for security.

Lest this episode turn O’Neill into a victim, let me be clear that his performance in the recent Conway Hall debate as one man debating four women, managed not only to monopolise the debate but to refocus it as an attack on Bea Campbell and feminism despite Samira Ahmed’s (the Chair) valiant efforts to steer the discussion back to freedom of speech. By going on the attack, O’Neill derailed the conversation. His key argument to Campbell was ‘ if you sign a letter to the Observer criticising the banning of Kate Smurthwaite from Goldsmiths but you didn’t say anything about the banning of Dapper Laughs  from Cardiff  then your view on campus censorship is irrelevant’. This was disingenuous. It’s like asking a supporter of women’s equality why they didn’t campaign for the ordination of women priests when they were demonstrating in support of higher wages for dinner ladies. We all prioritise the campaigns we get involved in. It is possible to support freedom of expression in principle without feeling motivated enough to campaign for an expression of ideas which you disagree with. O’Neill labelled these intolerant students ‘the bastard offspring’ of the 1980s feminists. The moral high ground which he sought to occupy was that there should be no limits imposed on free speech; any limit is a slippery slope. Yet when challenged by Pam Lowe, an academic from Aston University and the fourth panellist, he agreed that he drew the line at child pornography.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that freedom of speech is not absolute. The absolutist position fails to recognise the power imbalances where people with money, class, race and gender privileges, or the loudest voices exercise their freedom of speech in a way that drowns out other speech in a direct parallel with laissez-faire free-market ethics of ‘may the best man win’. O’Neill did exactly that, shouted loudest, without the faintest sense of self-awareness or irony. Bea Campbell responded eloquently ‘The conversation that I really want to have is not so much about the freedom of speech but about the difficulty of speech, the difficulty for those who need to speak …particularly if what they need to say has been shrouded in shame whether it is the about the shape of their body or somebody abusing their bodies. That is at the centre of the experience of women.’

Apart from peer imposed limits on freedom of speech, the state itself outlaws certain kinds of speech. The new guidance issued to universities under the Prevent duty where speakers with extremist views must not be provided with a platform oversteps the mark. It represents a significant assault on free speech in universities and, surprisingly, was not raised by any of the speakers on the panel. It might appear to be contradictory that the National Union of Students opposes the Prevent agenda while no-platforming Julie Bindel, but there is a topsy-turvy logic in that banning Muslim preachers would amount to Islamaphobia, one of their top three concerns along with transphobia and whorephobia. When you analyse it further, the internal consistencies are just not intellectually sustainable.

On the other hand, the laws on incitement to racial hatred and incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation were generally welcomed because of the protection afforded to vulnerable groups who had experienced racial or homophobic violence. The incitement to religious hatred, however, was opposed by many but it was passed into law with the proviso that it was still possible to criticise and ridicule religious beliefs in order to accommodate the fears of the opposition. The proviso was an attempt to draw a line. Where to draw the line is a question that will continue to electrify our debates.

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