On Sunday, the Guardian/Observer published a letter with an impressive list of signatories, arguing against the increasing tendency to ‘No Platform’ radical feminists at Universities in the UK. Some of the examples given have since been disputed, but the principle remains the same and those that signed were defending the right to debate and rational argument. Since then, some of the signatories have come under fire from people who saw the letter as an attack on trans people or sex workers. Peter Tatchell and Mary Beard have been defending themselves on Twitter ever since, apparently having been singled out as they were previously seen as ‘allies’.
I read the letter and thought it was about time that someone raised this important issue. It seems that feminists can not express views that are critical of the concept of gender or supportive of the Nordic model without being branded ‘trans’ or ‘whore’ phobic. Debate online on these issues quickly escalates into ad hominem attacks, abuse and threats of violence. I have seen pretty nasty behaviour on both sides and I think this is partly due to the nature of online communication. Twitter moves quickly, is often anonymous, and it is easy to get caught up in the adrenaline of an argument. People say things online that they would never dream of saying in real life which is why face to face debate and argument is so essential.
The idea that someone is ‘phobic’ of sex workers because they are anti-prostitution is ridiculous beyond belief. Whether you agree with the Nordic model or not, it is entirely possible to disagree with an idea without hating the people involved. I worked with sex workers for years and have seen the misery and suffering caused by their involvement in an industry which objectifies and harms the majority of those involved. My objection to the legalisation of prostitution is based on the suffering I have seen firsthand and I have absolutely no ‘phobia’ towards the women involved whatsoever. In fact, I dedicated my time and my career to helping and supporting them find their own solutions. This did not mean ‘rescuing them’ and they often continued to work in prostitution throughout the time I knew them. I considered myself an ally and saw my role as fighting against the systemic oppression and stigma these women so often face.
To call those opposed to prostitution ‘whorephobic’ works by turning the tables and immediately locates the target in the position of oppressor when so often their views are based on attempting to free all women from oppression. This is why such language is manipulative and wrong. It feeds into our tendency as women to feel guilty and apologise for having opinions. To be ‘phobic’ is to suggest that one is blind to one’s own privilege, rooted in hate based prejudice, and therefore against the very idea of feminism and all those who fight to end oppression. I rarely see these labels directed at misogynistic men who are clearly ‘whorephobic’ (and often users of prostitutes) as they are most often employed by feminists against other feminists who happen to disagree. I am staunchly anti-capitalist but nobody has ever accused me of being ‘industrialist’ or ‘businessman’ phobic.
The idea that one must hate individuals if one is against systemic oppression seems to me to be a function of living in a particularly individualistic society. Pro-prostitution positions are usually based on individualistic arguments about empowerment, choice or economic necessity. Those who argue that a system that commodifies women in such a way is bad for all women are the ones who face accusations of ‘phobia’. In the same way that I can be vegetarian yet not hate butchers, I can be anti-prostitution yet pro sex worker.
Whether you agree with me or not however, I honestly think that it is important that opposing views are heard. I have spent many hours trying to figure out what on earth I think about the theories and opinions espoused by radical feminists and trans activists on gender and I am still completely at a loss. Both camps are so entrenched in their opinions that genuine respectful debate is rare. I for one would be much happier to see these issues discussed in person because online discussion can so easily get out of hand. I find the views of Nigel Farage completely abhorrent but I support his right to express them. I would much rather live in a world where I can go and hear him, heckle him from the audience and even throw eggs at him if I so choose, than one in which he is effectively banned from public speaking.
That is why the letter is so important. That is why Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell and all of the other brave signatories were right to sign it. Debate and argument are essential parts of living in a democratic society and the continued insistence on branding those that disagree with certain beliefs as ‘phobic’ represents an attempt to silence and censor. If people are genuinely secure in their views and have thought them through properly, then why on earth are they scared of a bit of disagreement? I have even been known to reexamine my beliefs and you know, change them, after listening to someone with an entirely opposite view. This is part of a healthy democracy and I don’t want to see us get to the point where people can be no platformed for thought crime. Orwell must be turning in his grave.
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I’m a signatory of the letter, and you’ve outlined exactly why I signed. There are issues I’ve changed my mind on since I started engaging in public debate on feminist issues, and without public debate, I wouldn’t have been forced to reconsider my preconceptions. There are positions I have held consistently, for which I can argue with more confidence and persuasion because I have tested them in discussion. I see all those things as a good – more than a good, as essential to an active, empathetic intellectual life. We need conversation if we are to live together as a society.
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Thanks for your comment – I’m really pleased you’ve read my piece as I’m a huge admirer of your writing. I couldn’t agree more. Conversation and debate are essential for increasing understanding and empathy with those who are different from ourselves.
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This is a very good post. I signed the letter too and you’ve expressed it very well. Thank you.
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Thank you 🙂
I couldn’t agree more. Opinions, informed or tacit MUST be tested via debate.
To have a fair debate, the marginalised people who are the subject of the debate must be empowered to participate on an equal footing – that’s no easy task, as I can testify that they often feel frightened, attacked and set up by such debates (which are invariably led by, organised by and chaired by people who do not represent them) and do not feel their concerns are being listened to (and surely good listening skills are what makes for a good debate). There is a difference, surely, between fair debate and manipulative, straw-man rhetoric that manufactures a sense of the threatening “other” to the point where the voices of the “other” are drowned out?
I think that any marginalised person who speaks out is brave and deserving of support. This includes all women. And I agree, of course empathic listening is key to debate.
not all women are equal – some women can marginalise others, I hope we’re accepting that as a given? One woman “speaking out” on the subject of a more marginalised woman/person’s experience without consulting them may be bold, sure, but that doesn’t mean what she’s doing has any use or merit.
I’m going to guess, Sam, that you’re saying that men are more oppressed than women, and less able to speak in public. I think the fact this letter actually had to be written, that getting a public airing of feminist viewpoints in the face of trans resistance is hellishly difficult, would disprove that. This is an abusive reversal, that women talk over men, and manifestly untrue to anyone who has eyes in their head. Let women speak!
No, I believe the oppression of women is one of many oppressions in this world, but it is a very real oppression. There is also the oppression of gay people, the oppression of trans people, the oppression of disabled people, of black people, etc. It’s called intersectionality. They don’t cancel each other out, and they overlap in very complex ways. For instance, Margaret Thatcher was in a position to oppress gay men, miners, even though she was a woman and they were men – this isn’t because women oppress men but is about class oppression and oppression based on sexuality. There isn’t just one form of oppression in this world and we can’t neatly decide who the oppressors are based on just one fact about them.
I agree that we have to give people the opportunity to speak even if we know we probably disagree with them, how else can we really understand them enough to challenge them? There is probably a lot written on this and I’m not sure if there is a word for it- but it strikes me that there is a process groups have to go through when they are in a minority, that, no matter how much we try, we can’t fast- forward or compensate for or balance out- to some extent, some one is going to have to stick thier neck out, feel uncomfortable but every time they do this they make it easier for the next person to do it. Throughout history, marginalised people have had those excruciating exchanges and it has changed history! Am not saying this is how it should be, am just saying that am not sure we can honestly avoid those uncomfortable conversayions sometimes but they have to be had.
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