This is a bit of a long one, apologies... but useful think to set the record straight.
About a week ago, I was sent the text of a letter about the problem of "no platforming" in universities, specifically in relation to divergent, unpopular, and may well be wrong, feminist views, especially in relation to sex workers and the trans community. In fact I had one from the organiser of the letter, and another from an academic colleague.
I have a very clear, long held view on this (which may not of course be right): that 'no platforming' unpopular views is counter productive, discourages debate and the due dissection of error, and pushes views one would like to contest openly underground, where they may well flourish better than if exposed to the clear light of argument (which is one of the things that universities are for).
This is not a simple argument about free speech, which is much too fuzzy a concept to be much use honestly. No one really believes that we have a right to totally free speech, except some idiots on the web who use the phrase to justify anything from death threats down. And everyone reckons there are some difficult cases (and the subject of this letter may have been one of those). But what I would stand by, forever, would be the centrality of free debate in universities and elsewhere. As one e-mailer put it, in reference to questions of Germaine Greer's views on trans politics, "of course she can find another platform if she is disinvited from Cambridge, but we need her to DEBATE here". We should be in the business of subjecting all views, both those with which we agree and those with which we disagree, to public scrutiny. Free speech only means anything it is refers to views with which you disagree as well as agree -- else it's no more than a cabal.
Ok so I get sent the letter (text here). Why sign, why not? Well one thing is certain: at least one of the examples cited in such a letter will always be challenged or turn out to be more complicated. So you have to be clear that the big point transcends any one case. In this instance, it looks like the Smurthwaite example may not have been as it has been widely reported. But Julie Bindel (with whose views on this I disagree) certaintly has been no-platformed by NUS for some time. Greer was threatened with a disinvitation (I disagree with most of what she says too, but defend her right -- and our right -- to debate it). The Oxford abortion debate looks like another, which could well have been mentioned actually.
My worry about no platforming, as the letter clearly stated, is this:
"You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying. We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange."
I was NOT signing up to an attack on the trans community. Nor was there any remote suggestion that I was.
OK. Then your next worry is your fellow signatories, which you cannot control. Rightly, I think. You have to sign up to the words and the argument not to a club of the like-minded. And you can hardly ask the organiser of a public letter to send you the full list of names before publication in case you didn't want to be seen next to Mr X in print (you don't do that with a petition, after all). As it happens there are about 130 signatories. I dont know all of them, but they include sex workers and trans people, and include many I am proud to be next to: Nimko Ali, Peter Tatchell, Lisa Appignanesi, Melissa Benn, Caroline Criado-Perez, Prof Catherine Hall, Gia Milinovich, Prof Sophie Scott, Prof Francesca Stavrakopoulou, and loads more. Hardly the forces of gender darkness, unless you are a real reactionary.
Anyway since the letter was posted on the Guardian website first thing on Saturday, for two days I have been bombard by tweets (and a few emails). Some tweeters have been very polite in their disagreement; for which, thank you. Others not quite so (i should be clear, though, there have been no threats of violence). I mean bombard. I got 60 tweets in the space of about an hour from one person alone.
The complaints fall into several clear categories. 1) I am an appalling transphobe and whorephobe.. else why would I have signed with all those others...er Catherine Hall a whorephobe? 2) I am a bit passed it, a poor old lady who hasn't quite got the issues straight, bless her 3) I have been duped by the transphobes, because I am a nice person really. This goes along with some more idiosyncratic complaints, like about putting quotes round transphobe (scare quotes indicated we didn't believe in the phenomenon, when it was actually a quote after "deemed"), or comparing my attitude to this to that on the Elgin marbles, or suggesting that I thought Oxbridge profs had a right to speak where others didn't (er, precisely what I have spent my life resisting). One person said that they would be lighting their meeting tomorrow night with a burning of Beard and Tatchell's books, and provided a pic of a previous burning of words. (Someone later piled in to say words to the effect of how paranoid we were to take it seriously.. that's where Kafka comes to mind.)
OK you say, why bother with this (about 200 tweets have come in while I have been writing this post -- happily mostly supportive)? Simple really: I do believe that if you sign a public letter, you should be there to respond to the interlocutors (it's debate after all)... but 60 in an hour from one person?
And I also think that these things aren't straightforward, and there are issues to discuss on which we might reasonably disagree. and that we should take every opportunity to engage with each other about those. The events of the last couple of months have made thinking harder about difficulties "free speech" all the more important. Anyone who is certain they have got these issues "right" are probably very dangerous (and I include myself in that, Socratically).
But I do feel there is something wrong here. I feel confident that I am not a transphobe or whorephobe as accused and could provide references to that effect (though I realise that prejudices are not best perceived by those who hold them)! More fundamentally, I think there is something very weird going on if me and Peter Tatchell (never mind the other 130 people) are held up as the enemy of the SW and trans community when (whatever the micro arguments are) we are on the same damned side. And, for that matter, where are our priorities here when sex workers and trans people are actually getting killed... which really has nothing to do with this anodyne letter on university no-platforming?
Last night I went to bed wanting to weep.. OK a rather minor discomfort given what other people suffer for their gender, but pointless and counterproductive. It wasn't the force of any remark, it was the relentless pummelling of attack on the basis of extraordinary loaded, sometimes quite wrong, readings of the letter. Cumulative harrassment is what it felt like, though I am sure it wasn't meant that way.
To add insult to injury, the Cambridge News emailed nicely today to say they were running a story on this, did I want to comment? No thank you, I said, I was working. As soon as the online story appears, there's a tweet appearing to say how I have used my privilege (or words to that effect) to run to the local paper for support, and the usual under the line comments in the News about attention seeking.
"Why is it Mary Beard thinks she always needs to speak out about certain matters ? Is it because, like one or two others, she's really an Attention Seeker ??"
You can see why a lot of women (and there is a gender issue here) might choose not to put their heads above the parapet, cant you.