Purity and absolutism

Jane Fae has thoughts on the no-platforming of Julie Bindel.

It was a feminist conference that did for me. I was due to speak at Feminism in London this month, but have now agreed not to, apparently because my views veer too far from accepted doctrine.

The topic of the talk in question was “speech and space”: my view is that the demand for absolute freedom of speech emerges from privilege; and that virtual spaces should be policed and protected in ways similar to physical space. I have watched over the last couple of years as various mobs have attacked women online – Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy, Mary Beard. The list is endless, and more must be done to address this online abuse.

Me, in a smaller way. Many women I know, in a smaller way.

But on other topics – the regulation of porn, for one – I have contrarian views, and this was enough for those who were concerned at my presence at the conference to cry havoc. Suddenly, every last word I have written over the years – and I write a lot, maybe 300,000-400,000 words a year – was up for scrutiny, every slightest deviation from the true way magnified to make me the enemy.

Ooh yeah! Isn’t it fun when they do that? When they literally comb through Facebook groups to find comments of yours, and not just comments but even when you’ve clicked the “like” button on something? Isn’t it wonderful to discover that people can be that obsessive and filthy in their hatred of little you? It’s like finding them sniffing at your dirty clothes hamper.

Behind the scenes, individuals whispered that my presence made the space “unsafe” for some women. Perhaps this was because of my supposed views on porn, but more likely it’s because I am a trans woman, since others holding similar views do not seem to have been briefed against. A situation was created in which, if I had insisted on speaking, I would have undermined both the event and my own thesis. There was no good or right option: it felt kinder to walk away; to collude, if you wish, in my own silencing.

Yes…I did that too, but not because it felt kinder. I did it because it felt cleaner; less contaminating; less like being trapped in a small room with a group of twisted vengeful fanatics. I did it because I wanted to get far away from them. It’s worked a treat.

Just days later, the feminist writer and activist Julie Bindel has been “no-platformed”. She supported me in my own time of difficulty, and was this week barred from a debate at Manchester University on whether modern feminism has a problem with free speech.

Again, it is safety that is the supposed issue, although bizarrely, that same institution seems to have no difficulty in inviting Milo Yiannopoulos to speak, a rightwing commentator who has publicly argued that trans people are mentally ill, and suggested that rape culture does not exist.

This situation is not specifically about feminism, but something else, something dangerous in current discourse. It is about absolutism: feminist, trans, Green, Corbynista; every fashionable fraction of progressive thought.

I think of it as being more to do with purity than absolutism, but it’s both, and they’re closely related anyway. People who don’t want to keep all the things clean and separate, but instead are happy with mixing and slopping the juices around and morgrelism of all sorts, are much less likely to be absolutists too.

It is, too, the forced syllogism: the idea that knowing one or two things about a person, one therefore knows all, and can extrapolate the whole.

Or else that the one or two things are so radioactive that they pollute everything else about a person. There was this Facebook “like” once, so everything else is garbage.

And in the end, it is about silencing. This happens only occasionally through the formality of the “no platform”. Far more often, as in this instance, an impossible situation is created, which forces a person to step down from speaking.

Which is great, because it means the creators of the impossible situation can blame the whole thing on the person who steps down from speaking. It’s all her fault, the hysterical bitch – we were just having a nice re-education session in which we made lists of everything we hate about her, and she had to go and ruin it by leaving. But what do you expect from a hysterical bitch like her? It’s just typical.

We need safe spaces. We also need mutual tolerance. Without it, debate will end, not just formally, by individuals being denied a platform, but totally, through a far more dangerous rush to self-censor. In too many places, too many spaces, we are there already.

I hope the zealots of the Manchester Student Union will read Jane Fae’s article.

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