FULL TRANSCRIPT: Women’s Right to Free Speech in UK Universities

 

Good evening, everyone.

Thank you very much for being here. Thank you especially to the Bristol Free Speech Society for extending the invitation and for taking this issue on.

I particularly want to thank our venue, for hosting us tonight… Thank you very much to every single person at the University of Bristol who has done nothing more than respect the rule of law, and in doing so, have stood up for all our rights: my right as a speaker to speak and your right as an audience to listen and challenge my arguments.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you to every single person at the University of Bristol who, by following the law and their very own policies, have allowed me to stand here so that I can deliver a speech about women’s right to free speech. You’re all brave and stunning!

We all know why we are here. We know why you all want to hear from me. And I want to be clear that we are not going to talk about that. That will remain the elephant in the room so please do not ask me about it during the questions and answer portion of this event.

As you can imagine, I’ve had months and months to ruminate about the topic we will discuss tonight: women’s right to free speech in UK Universities. I have thought long and hard about what does it mean to encourage a climate where women have to right to be heard? What does it mean to foment a climate in which women’s voices are suppressed?

My most pressing thought is: what a bizarre situation! How many female speakers have been no-platformed? How many female academics have had their articles or their research pulled? How many female professors and staff members have been subjected to unsubstantiated disciplinary procedures for holding “wrong” ideas? How many are frightened by that prospect and self-censor, as we speak?

A year ago, I was in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. I was working for the Ministry of Women in the Shelter Work department. My contract expired on the 30th of October so around this time, I was bidding farewells to my friends, family and a couple of rascal dogs. And I was going to the beach at weird hours because I wanted to get as much sunshine as possible before I came to England.

I knew what you all have going on here, whether-wise… I also knew what had been happening in UK universities to feminist writers and campaigners, for far too long. That is why the first thing I did, as soon as I got my acceptance letter , was read several of the university policies. Particularly, the Unacceptable Behaviour Policy. And boy did that one came in handy!

I wanted to make sure that, in everything I did, I abide by the rule of law of my temporary new home and the institution that I was joining. I wanted to make sure that I did “everything right” … but as we know, sometimes academic institutions do not do “everything right” by feminist speakers. I feel grateful that, now, I have the right to speak, but I’m constantly reminding myself of how many others have had that right shut down. My hope is that by standing up for myself and for women’s right to free speech, other women will have their right to free speech and freedom of assembly respected and upheld, as well.

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Australian feminist writer Dale Spender wrote in ‘Women of Ideas (And What Men Have Done To Them)’:

“From Aphra Behn to Matina Horner women have argued that men have claimed for themselves a monopoly of the mind, they have described and legitimized themselves as the ‘authoritive sex’, the sex with the capacity to be ‘objective’, the sex who comprises the ‘natural’ intellectuals, philosophers, poets, politicians, policy-makers, etc. It seems that in the long struggle for equality women have achieved few, if any gains in this area.”

This was published in 1983.

Spender writes that women’s intellectual capacities were perceived as a threat back when the playwriter Aphra Behn was writing in the 1600’s, and in the 80’s as well. I would argue that in 2018, women speaking out is still perceived as a threat. This somber and depressing reality is precisely the reason why we’re all here tonight. Spender also argues:

“Women are intellectually competent, and even the repudiating devices of patriarchy cannot always conceal this. But even where women’s intellectual competence is ‘undeniable’, men are still able to ‘deny’ it, and take it away. Women who reveal their intellectual resources are often described as having ‘masculine minds’, which is a clever device for acknowledging their contribution while at the same time it allows it to be dismissed, for a woman with a ‘masculine mind’ is unrepresentative of her sex, and the realm of the intellectual is still retained by men”.

Every time a woman gets no-platformed or faces barriers to speaking freely, on account of her sex, the idea that the intellectual sphere is the sphere of men is reinstated and perpetuated. Some of the rhetoric and the theoretical arguments used for shutting and shouting down women in all aspects of public life, academia included, may have changed a bit but the underlying framework remains the same.

On December 3rd, 2015, the so-called Bristol Feminist Society (it’s ok: we have a new one. Better, bolder… and actually feminist!) disinvited British writer Sarah Ditum from a panel titled ‘Women in Journalism’, on account that someone said that maybe Sarah Ditum had written or said something, that may or may have not, been transphobic? We’re not really sure!

“We made the decision to rescind Sarah Ditum’s invitation to a panel event we are holding. The decision was based on previous allegations that claimed Sarah Ditum made transphobic comments. We don’t want to platform someone with transphobic views as much as we don’t want to characterize someone as transphobic who is not transphobic. Whether or not comments made by Sarah Ditum are transphobic is contested, and on the basis of this, we apologise.”

What does that mean?

No.

What. Does. That. Mean?

What does it mean that a female writer with expertise in journalism should be “disinvited” from a panel based on allegations that someone may have accused her (or not!) of holding “transphobic views”? Who defines that accusation? How could an accusation hold so much power that a woman’s career could be threatened if someone claims that she may hold an undefined and unspecified opinion, that cannot even be confirmed?

I have also been accused of transphobia. It is an accusation meant to silence you, stifle you, shut you up and scare you. On its own, it’s a disconcerting accusation. When it’s meant to be coupled with chants of “If you really hate the TERFS clap your hands (clap clap)” and “You’re shit and you know it” and “SCUM SCUM SCUM”… then it becomes something more sinister.

A vehicle.

A weapon.

A torch that aims to burn down women’s careers, our livelihoods and our mental stability.

The people who level these accusations against women know how frightened women are of seeing our careers destroyed, our friendships endangered, our reputations in the mud. The most effective way to counter these unfair and untrue accusations being leveled against women is by pointing out how the word transphobia has, unfortunately, ceased to be a concept necessary to challenge the oppression faced by vulnerable people who want to live happy and healthy lives, without violence and discrimination.

Instead, it has been turned into a Trojan horse for misogyny and the most toxic masculinity. One out of the many tools that patriarchy can deploy against you next, if you don’t watch your mouth. Or if you’re not careful of what you write.

I am proud to be sharing a platform with Sarah Ditum next week.

She is not transphobic and neither am I.

But Sarah Ditum is not the only feminist to be no-platformed from a university in the United Kingdom. Also in 2015, Australian feminist writer Germaine Greer faced fierce backlash that tried to prevent her from speaking at the University of Cardiff. She had been invited to give a lecture on women’s rights in Britain. In the lead up to the event, over 3,000 people wrote a petition arguing that, even though Greer was not going to talk about gender identity politics, she should be disinvited over her “misogynistic views” regarding trans people.

The Guardian writes:

“(Greer) hinted she would stay away if the university could not guarantee that people would not throw things at her. Uniformed police officers stood guard outside the lecture theatre and security officials guarded the doors inside, but in the end only about a dozen people turned up to protest peacefully. Greer told the audience that campaigners had been “trying to frighten me off”, but added: “Here I am.”

And here I am, as well.

This is the point in the speech where I was going to include a sentence apologising for another woman’s views. I was planning on writing something along the lines of “regardless of whether or not we agree with Greer’s positions on a number of issues…” but I stopped. We do not police whether men are allowed to exercise their human right to free speech based on every single position they hold on every political issue. It would be gargantuan to even have to remember which man holds which view. If academia invited and disinvited male speakers depending on how acceptable totalitarian and aggressive activists find their every position, there would be no events held on campuses at all!

British journalist and writer Julie Bindel has often been no-platformed. She holds the distinct honour of being considered “officially no-platformed” by the National Students Union. By the way, we’ll see how legally binding banning Julie Bindel from all universities in the United Kingdom really is… But she writes poignantly about the messages she started receiving after becoming “one of those” women. The “radioactive” ones. The ones you don’t want to be associated with. Bindel writes:

“I started hearing from a number of students — female and a couple of men — who said, “You have just been no platformed from our University, you may not know this… But here’s a copy of the minutes where it was decided. The majority of us didn’t want you to be no platformed, but it was carried through by the gender officer or the trans officer or the queer officer or whatever, and therefore you are banned again and I’d like you to know on what lines.”

These women who emailed me would say, “We don’t know what to do because we can’t speak out. The last student who spoke out in favour of you, just to say, ‘I’d like to hear her speak,’ was sacked from her position as an officer in the feminist society.” I have become toxic. It’s not that my “transphobia” or “whorephobia,” in their view, is toxic — I am toxic.”

It’s worth noting that the last time that Julie Bindel was invited to speak at the University of Essex (by staff members), she was scheduled to speak on a panel with a pornographer. Now, we all may have different opinions about pornography, but it is interesting to note that it was her, the feminist writer, whose presence was considered “an act of violence” against Muslim students, queer students, bi students, polyamorous students (?), sex working students and trans students.

Bindel describes this experience by saying:

“I went onto Essex University campus and I meet the pornographer on the train and we politely say hello. This is a man who has produced porn for years, has given awards to porn sites such as ExploitedAfricans.com, which completely pornifies women coming from the Congo on boats, that have to be fucked by anyone because they’ve got no choice, because they’ve got no papers. There is another one which is a parody of the John Worboys taxi rapist… And this man’s given awards to these porn sites and I’m there getting ready to debate him and we are walking through campus and I see this rag-bag group of students shouting and screaming “transphobe,” “violent,” “phobic” this, “phobic” that, at me. And I thought, well, we are living in Orwellian times, as well as McCarthyite times. Because in what way is this pornographer, walking through this campus, with no dissent and no concern at all from these so-called feminists and pro-feminist students, and I’m being screamed at?

And there you have it. That is the climate in which we are living. Whatever your view is on the sex industry, on gender, on anything — there’s only one side being screamed down, and that’s the feminist side.”

Another British academic, Heather Brunskell-Evans, a social scientist and a researcher at King’s College London had been invited to speak at Kings by medical students from the Reproductive and Sexual Health Society, on the subject of pornography and the sexualisation of young women. But she was “disinvited” from the event after appearing on the Radio 4’s Moral Maze where she spoke about the medicalisation of children who identify as trans. She was told that her presence “would violate the student unions ‘Safe Space’ policy”.

Linda Bellos, a leading British feminist activist and campaigner for LGBT rights, has also been no-platformed. She was scheduled to speak at the University of Cambridge after being invited by the Beard Society and Peterhouse College and saw the invitation “withdrawn” when she said that she, a lesbian, would question “the power of those who were previously male to tell lesbians, and especially lesbian feminists, what to say and think”. Please, note the irony.

Ailish Maroof, the co-president of the society, which describes itself as a “gender and feminism” group, told Linda Bellos: “I’m sorry but we’ve decided not to host you. I too believe in freedom of expression, however Peterhouse is as much a home as it is a college. The welfare of our students in this instance has to come first.” How does a lesbian campaigner endanger the welfare of students by speaking about lesbian rights?

Some of these issues go back to 2012 and even farther depending on who you ask.

Just this week, Rosa Freedman, a Professor of Law, Conflict and Global Development at the University of Reading shared on social media: “Shout out to the student who brightened up my Tuesday morning by telling me that I am ‘a transphobic Nazi who should get raped’ and then walked away when I explained that surviving rape is one of many reasons why I defend women’s rights to sex-segregated spaces.”

Today, Julie Bindel wrote: “I have been no-platformed from an event celebrating ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘speaking truth to power’ after trans activists contacted the organiser and said my writing incites ‘violence’, and is ‘hate speech’.”

As we speak, across the pond, Canadian feminist writer Meghan Murphy is giving a talk at a separate location after Wilfrid Laurier University, a Canadian institution, decided to charge the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry $8055 Canadian dollars if they went ahead with Murphy’s speech. The university alleges that the $8,055 Canadian dollars fee is needed in order to cover security costs.

Recently, we also learned about a coordinated smear campaign against female academics that was emanating from Goldsmith University of London. A trans researcher named Natacha Kennedy had been organising attacks on female academics who did not comply with Kennedy’s view on gender. The Times reported that:

“(Kennedy) invited thousands of members of a closed Facebook group to draw up and circulate a list shaming academics who disagreed with campaigners’ theories on gender. The online forum revealed that members plotted to accuse non-compliant professors of hate crime to try to have them ousted from their jobs. Reading, Sussex, Bristol, Warwick and Oxford universities were among those deemed to have “unsafe” departments because they employed academics who had publicly disputed the belief that “transwomen are women” or questioned the potential impact of proposed changes to gender laws on women and children. According to Kennedy, it was important to create these smear campaigns so that students knew how to avoid “dangerous” courses.”

…where students might be forced to think for themselves and learn how to critically analyse dubious claims.

Among the advice issued to the thousands of members of the group, was the accuse female academics of a hate crime. “File a hate crime report against her, and then the chairman and vice-chair,” advised one. “Drag them over the fucking coals.”

Professor Freedman told The Times:

“We are talking about the aggressive trolling of women who are experts. I have received penis pictures telling me to ‘suck my girl cock’. This is straight-up, aggressive, anti-woman misogyny. In no way have I made the space unsafe. That is not academia. That is silencing people. The idea that writing about women’s rights automatically becomes a hate crime in some people’s eyes is ludicrous. All it has done has made me more determined to write about this, in a respectful way that allows other perspectives to come through, and not just the views of those who shout the loudest.”

And then there’s us: the University of Bristol. What have we done to ameliorate this climate of hostility and fear or to improve it? That’s gonna be an open question to you all and I hope you ponder about it in the coming days.

.

I am speaking, of course, about the Bristol SU’s motion to ban feminists from speaking at the University of Bristol. On February 27th, the so-called feminist student society (the old one, not the new one) put forward a motion seeking to ban speakers who didn’t comply with a certain religious belief regarding gender. The motion ‘Prevent Future TERF Groups from Holding Events at The University’ was allowed to go to the floor of the General Assembly meeting, even thought the Bristol SU had been repeatedly warned beforehand that this motion was targeting female students, creating a toxic climate for young feminists on campus and needless to say, unlawful.

And we need to be clear about the role of the Bristol Student Union here. Had any student society concocted a motion that used a xenophobic epithet against an immigrant population, and for example, attempted to ban Dominican speakers from holding meetings on campus, that motion would be shredded by the Bristol SU within seconds. Nobody would even dream of drafting such a motion but even if they did, the Bristol SU wouldn’t touch it with a pole.

Why? Because Dominican students could be male and any such motion would infringe on their rights.

Why did the Bristol SU support that motion, by allowing it to go through and by doing absolutely nothing when the mob-like atmosphere flared up that night? Because it was “only” targeting female students. That term of abuse is a term of abuse that seeks to vilify women. And only women.

Like many other media outlets, The Telegraph wrote about this kerfuffle and described the motion thusly:

“Any events which involve collaborating with groups that hold TERF views could now be barred from taking place on Bristol University grounds, according to the motion which was passed earlier this week. A committee will be set up in order to vet proposed speakers or organisations, in order to see whether they have expressed TERF views in the past.”

Let’s think about that for a second. In 2018, students in a Top 10 UK university suggested, and professional staff members at the Bristol SU supported, a motion that wanted to see feminists brought in for interrogation. We would have had to sit down before a panel to “explain our views.”

To answer for our forbidden thoughts.

To get a quite literal demonstration of our own subordination.

That motion was meant to send a clear message to all females; not only students but also academics and staff members. That message was meant to spread beyond the confines of the University of Bristol.

The message to women was clear: know your place.

On February 27th, when that misogynist motion was scheduled to go up for a vote at the Bristol Student Union general assembly meeting and I knew that the officials in charge at the Bristol SU would do nothing to prevent it, I went to my favourite pub. And I had a beer.

Later on, I spoke on the phone with a number of students who wanted me to know their version of what had happened. We’re talking about young women; 19 and 20-year olds. Some were immigrant, some were lesbians, some didn’t know much about feminism. All were frightened.

Frightened of the mob-like atmosphere that the officials at the Bristol SU allowed to take place. Frightened of watching women (other women? themselves?) be demonised. Frightened that yes, it could happen to them. I felt impotent.

When I was at this pub, two young men stood by the bar while I was within earshot. They obviously didn’t know who I was or whether I had anything to do with this debacle. They spoke about the hounding of the young feminists who wanted to express a dissident opinion through the letter in opposition. They spoke about how counterproductive the aggressive tactics of these activists harassing the women were. You could tell that they barely knew anything about this conflict, and at one point they both laughed and asked each other “what is a TERF?”

And towards the end of my speech, I would like to ask you all, as well: what is a ‘TERF’?

A student online newspaper describes the events as “a night of high drama” and explained:

“The drama wasn’t over yet. To the fury of some in the room, a letter from Women’s Place UK, the supposed TERF organisation whose meeting on campus inspired the motion, was read to the audience. It encouraged students to vote against the “defamatory” motion. At this point the vote was hurried forwards to prevent things getting out of hand. The result came through to the loudest cheers of the night: the motion had passed, by 90 votes to 42.”

How have we gotten to a point in which banning feminists is seen as anything but repressive and totalitarian? How have we gotten to a point in which students hold a deep conviction that this is what progress and social justice looks like?

Right now, we find ourselves at an interesting crux. Because, as social worker Lisa Muggeridge explains, the aggressive tactics of proponents of gender identity politics have demanded from the unwitting public a societal awakening about systems of power. The shutting down, no-platforming, the intimidation, the threats, the motions… all of that has peaked the interests of those who couldn’t care less about women’s rights but also and crucially, the interest of those whose job it is to do: government officials, policy makers, researchers, activists, academics…

Once we make it out of these choppy waters and the turbulence of the current socio-political moment has passed, I think we will be left in a much better place than we did coming in. Obviously, I would never say that I am grateful that any of this has happened but I think that there is immense value in seeing our feminist theories manifest and therefore tested: what is male privilege? What is male entitlement? What is male patterned abuse? What is misogyny? What is patriarchy?

Don’t let anyone confuse you with masturbatory theories and incomprehensible, metaphysical pronouncements about subjectivity and whatnot… just take a step back and observe the dynamics of what has been happening not only right here, in this university, but also in the United Kingdom and worldwide, regarding sex, gender and identity politics.

Step back and observe the dynamics.

What do you see?

US feminist writer Natacha Chart writes:

“Women continue to be driven out of employment by male harassment, publicly vilified in sex-specific ways, tortured for entertainment in the sex industry, and killed for displeasing men. As then, as ever, these injuries add up to degradation and disadvantage. Though they feel very personal when we are subject to them, the men who benefit from driving us out of public competition for power and resources don’t really care who we are. If another woman was in our place, they’d do it to her.

It’s the result of a centuries long, deliberate political project of destroying women’s will, power, and independence. That power and independence won’t be restored without similarly deliberate political resistance. Because, as Lierre Keith says, oppression is not a misunderstanding.”

The social exclusion, the doxxing, the harassment, the intimidation, the motions, the threats… they all serve the same purpose. And that purpose was true back in the 1600’s when Aphra Behn was writing, in the 1980’s when Dale Spender was writing, before both of them and now, as well.

The fear of “it” happening to us is meant to isolate us. That is a fear of being left alone, of being on our own, and exposed to be torn apart by unrelenting demands for female erasure. That fear is natural and it is powerful.

It keeps us quiet and compliant. And crucially, it keeps us isolated from other women who are, in turn, isolated while sharing our same worries and concerns. That fear isolates us internally, as we retreat into ourselves, and it isolates us externally, as we distance ourselves from any other potential non-compliant women.

The only appropriate response both to that fear and to the age-old misogynist attempts to shut down women’s voices is to speak up and speak out. To use our voices and say what has been meant to be suppressed. We must continue to speak, just like the women before us found the courage to use their voices amidst stiff opposition. We must continue to speak, so that the women who will come after us can see that, at this moment in time, when our voices were needed the most, we didn’t shut up.

We spoke up.

For our foremothers, for ourselves and each other, and in the hope that if and when there comes a time when the women who will come after us are tested as well, they too will use the power of their voices and speak.

Thank you.

 

 

 

This speech was hosted by the Bristol Free Speech Society and delivered on October 24th, 2018 at the University of Bristol: https://www.facebook.com/events/309746219806981/

 

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