Before you read this, I would invite you to read this brilliant feministkilljoys piece that has already covered most of the criticisms of the Observer piece. Also, this by Sarah Brown picks apart the specific cases cited in it.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
That seems like a nice sentiment, right? Freedom of speech has conventionally been the yardstick for a democratic society, to oppose such a thing is fascistic, evil, and an affront to peace and liberty… except I don’t wholeheartedly agree with that anymore. You see, I grew the fuck up and stopped looking at the world in monochrome tones.
We live in an unequal world. The loudest voices are so often the most oppressive. Speech does not exist in a vacuum, when a harmful voice is amplified it becomes an instrument of harm. When the pen gives legitimacy to the sword, we need to step back and examine the effects of speech and whether crude notions of liberty justify that. Free speech should fundamentally protect the safety of oppressed people, not be the justification for further oppression.
Not allowing the voices of people who want to fuck up your existence in a particular space isn’t fascism, or oppressing those speakers, it’s carving out a tiny area of safety in an otherwise unsafe world (two of those mentioned in the piece, Julie Bindel and Kate Smurthwaite, have been given grants from the US Department of State and frequent spots on the BBC respectively, so are actively supported by state apparatus). The wider implications of allowing harmful speech are that it allows the oppressor class to shut off future discourse by those directly affected by what they are saying. Sex workers and trans people are already ostracised by society and for an outsider with none of our experiences to swoop in and spread misinformation about our lives and reinforce those harmful beliefs in others, thus cutting off future dialogue, is in itself an attack on the freedom of speech of those who are actually qualified to speak about those issues.
So, let’s talk about this in the context of that Observer piece. Those signing are effectively asking that universities ignore objections to toxic people being allowed to speak there and thus encroach on the safety and comfort of transgender and sex worker students. In allowing voices that are critical of these peoples’ very existence, you are telling them that they do not have ownership of that existence and that their identities should be up for debate by people who are outsiders to it. Universities have historically been the birthplace of and nurtured the fight against persecution of marginalised groups; they should be safe places of learning, rather than a platform for bigotry that is already entrenched in most other institutions.
The timing, content and context of the piece is revealing; it is very specific to just whorephobes and transphobes being given platforms. Academics and journalists did not unite to condemn the cancellation of Dapper Laughs’ Cardiff University show (was the petition against him “illiberal and undemocratic” or “bullying” too?). The intention here is clear; only a very specific type of bigotry should be defended, only certain women should be allowed safety, it propagates the comfortable, less overt, type of bigotry that places ivory tower academics as superior to those that they are theorising about, sex workers and transgender individuals are frequently dismissed as untrustworthy when we voice our concerns about those peering in on and harming us.
I should end this by saying that I do agree with freedom of thought, if someone thinks that I am vermin because of how I make a living, that’s their right. It’s horrible, and saddening, but they have their right to form their own opinions. What I object to is the notion that they should be able to spread those beliefs and further malign people whose existence is fraught with difficulty as it is; as this is how those harmful beliefs come to be in the first place. If you stop the hate speech, you start to break the stigma.