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Free Speech is Great, But Stop Using it to Maintain Your Privilege

There’s been an awful lot of debate around issues of ‘free speech’ in the UK recently. Universities have been particularly condemned after the disruptions to events like the Oxford abortion debate, Kate Smurthwaite’s gig, and far-right French political leader Marine le Pen’s speech. What many zealous champions of freedom fail to realize, though, is that these people are not victims. Their human rights are not being quashed by hordes of ‘malevolent,’ ‘PC-obsessed’ students. These outraged critics fail to realize that their criticisms come from a place of privilege – and what appears to them as an interesting, hypothetical debate is to others a very real discussion and often condemnation of their identities, choices and experiences. Not to mention often highly triggering.

To those claiming to be victims of censorship at the hands of protestors: in a society where the right to protest is worryingly threatened, I don’t have time for your whining. That doesn’t make me an enemy of free speech – it just means I don’t like hypocrites. To complain about protestors ignores the very real threats of violence and discrimination that come from elsewhere – or sometimes even from those being protested. Don’t believe me? Read on and see for yourself.

Free Speech Doesn’t Automatically Entitle You to a Platform

Newsflash: the right to free speech is not the same as the right to a platform. Many platforms lend legitimacy to their speakers’ views, even if they don’t actually endorse them. In the case of le Pen’s speech at Cambridge in 2013, for instance, although the Union clearly did not explicitly validate le Pen’s views, “No matter how robustly she was challenged, the take-away […] was that Marine le Pen was invited to speak the University of Cambridge in front of some of the brightest young minds in the world,” notes Tim Squirrel, ex-President of the Cambridge Union.

None of these speakers have been censored. People like Le Pen, Julie Bindel and Brendan O’Neill (or, as I prefer to call him, Belligerent O’Numpty) are still expressing their views on several national and international platforms. The fact they are protested proves their views are widely known, showing they are not the real victims of censorship at universities by a long shot.

There is a huge difference between top-down censorship – which Zoe Stavri describes as a tool used to “quash dissent” and “maintain the status quo” – and bottom-up no-platforming. Far from being the oppressors, protestors are refusing to condone the repetition of oppressive points of view. Eve Livingston points out, in this vein, that attempts to use J.S. Mill to condemn no-platforming are horribly misguided, as Mill:

“[…] defines the principle of free speech as a means for civil society to hold the privileged and powerful to account without fear of repercussion.”

Indeed – where are all these people when there are issues of censorship that actually reproduce structures of oppression? What about the constant sexualization and censorship of women’s bodies, as seen in objections to breastfeeding in public, the banning of a breast cancer campaign, or the complaints about Rita Orla’s clothing? What about the banning of female ejaculation in UK porn, Facebook’s real name policy, the violent closure of a peaceful student protest, or the porn filter allowing parents the means of blocking websites providing LGBTQ information? What about the countless people who face threats and abuse for daring to air their views in public, even in the West – what about women who are threatened with death or rape for speaking their minds? What about things deemed insensitive or inappropriate without a huge media backlash?

And would these people complain about parental advisory notices, the moderation of Internet groups, or the punishable nature of libel and hate speeches?

Debates Don’t Exist in a Vacuum

Many have been berating students for refusing to engage in intellectual debate with their opponents; after all, isn’t that what we go to university for? To have our views challenged?

We do, yes; but debates are not purely hypothetical. We do have a right to feel comfortable in our homes and schools, and it is ridiculous to suggest that transgender students should share that space with people who deny their existence, or that anyone with a womb should happily accommodate two men arguing about what they should or shouldn’t be allowed to do with it. This is not a question of being unwilling to engage in healthy debate – it is about protesting the presence of a speaker who does not acknowledge their own privilege and the damage their words may cause.

It’s not as simple as telling protestors to challenge the speakers. People may not want to put themselves through such an ordeal when their points will likely be dismissed or ridiculed, and sometimes there is simply no chance for debate. As Squirrel points out, the ‘good’ side of a debate may also be poorly expressed, so prejudiced views will not necessarily be successfully countered, and the outcomes of such debates have very real, very harmful effects:

“Debates like this can play into already existing biases about particular groups of people, often vulnerable people, which the audience hold, in order to make it even harder for them to achieve equal status.”

Equally, telling students “don’t go if it makes you uncomfortable” ignores the fact that these people will feel uncomfortable whether they attend or not. Students are going to feel unsafe knowing their university has welcomed a speaker who thinks their identity or bodily autonomy is up for debate without presenting any considerable challenge to these views, especially as these students are often victims of prejudice and violence. Plus, telling people not to go somewhere if it makes them uncomfortable further alienates them. Why should we be the ones to take a step back when we are doing nothing wrong?

Who really needs protecting?

Defenders of ‘free speech’ often accuse protestors of an infantile need to be protected, or ‘coddled.’ But when these people complain that their free speech has been threatened, they are ironically asking to be protected themselves. Instead of stepping back and examining their views, they throw a temper-tantrum because not everyone wants to listen to what they have to say all the time.

Despite their concern for rational debate, they seem more preoccupied with ridiculing protestors than engaging with their actual reasons for protesting, and their method of argument, thus hypocritically shutting down their side of the argument. Their apparent love of logical reasoning is also disproved in that illogical parallels are often drawn to try and shame protestors, which usually completely miss the points being made (for instance, advocating women’s rights to breastfeed in public does not mean men should have the right to pee in the street…). Sarah Amed also notes the hypocrisy of those claiming to be censored, despite the fact that their views continually gain more media coverage:

“Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction; you are witnessing a mechanism of power.”

Mehdi Hasan also illustrates the hypocrisy of those defending Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, describing the thought experiment of Oxford philosopher, Brian Klug:

“Imagine, he writes, if a man had joined the “unity rally” in Paris on 11 January “wearing a badge that said ‘Je suis Chérif’” – the first name of one of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen. Suppose, Klug adds, he carried a placard with a cartoon mocking the murdered journalists. ‘How would the crowd have reacted? . . . Would they have seen this lone individual as a hero, standing up for liberty and freedom of speech?’”

Somehow, I doubt it.


Protesting is a Form of Free Speech

Oppression is arguably a form of censorship in itself, and when these marginalized voices continue to be silenced for challenging their oppressors, and oppressors are seen as victims, it’s clear that something has gone horribly wrong.

The right to offend is covered by freedom of expression. So is the right to protest. In protesting against protests, and in labeling any attempt to dismantle oppressive speech ‘censorship,’ we are demonizing the wrong people. So let’s stop condemning protestors, and remember that freedom of speech covers their rights, too.


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Image via Daniela Vladimirova.

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Written by Abi Rose

Abi Rose is a recent English Language & Literature graduate from Oxford University, where she discovered a passion for all things feminist. When she’s not busy kicking the patriarchy where it hurts, she enjoys painting, songwriting, and generally idolising Regina Spektor.

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