As Cardiff University comes under pressure to cancel a lecture by Germaine Greer on account of her unapologetic transphobia, Jonathan Boniface offers his view on why so-called ‘no-platforming’ is a thoroughly justifiable standpoint.
The mere mention of the phrase ‘no-platforming’ is often enough to make even the most shaky of liberals wring their hands, clutch at their pearls and do everything short of cry ‘will no one think of the children?’.
I can understand the reason for this, and I respect the position of commentators and activists such as Peter Tatchell, who is renowned for preferring to tackle intolerance head-on and in the open, even going so far as to defend the position of those expressing opinions to which he is diametrically opposed. I ‘get’ the logic: instead of suppressing hateful views, bigotry and intolerance, one forces it blinking and squirming into the light, with its ugliness exposed for all to see and where it can be challenged and, hopefully, destroyed.
That said, I’ve started to come to the conclusion that, as with everything in life, it simply isn’t that easy to stick so rigidly to absolutes in such matters, and the issue of ‘no-platforming’ definitely falls into that category. This came to me recently when a friend of mine shared a petition calling for Cardiff University to withdraw an invitation to Germaine Greer, who is scheduled to deliver a lecture entitled ‘Women and Power: The lessons of the 20th Century’ on November 14th.
Bitter experience with social media platforms such as Facebook made me hesitant, at first, to offer a comment on this, but the temptation to offer my viewpoint proved too great. The problem, as far as I could see, was that those criticising the call to ‘no-platform’ Greer were simply missing the point. The default position in such cases always seems to be the argument pertaining to free speech; Greer should be free to come and say whatever she wants, and surely it’s best to allow her to air her views in a public forum where she can be debated and challenged? Also, isn’t Greer entitled to a platform on which to expound her views – isn’t that what democracy is all about?
I’ve started to come to the conclusion that, as with everything in life, it simply isn’t that easy to stick so rigidly to absolutes in such matters, and the issue of ‘no-platforming’ definitely falls into that category.
I understand these views, as do I understand the concerns of those who would argue that dictating what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ view as opposed to an ‘unacceptable’ view is something of a slippery slope. But I think that those who make these arguments fail to see the shades of grey that exist in a situation such as this. I also find myself frustrated by the double standard that I perceive to exist here. Put simply: if she were to engage in Islamophobia or another ‘recognised’ form of racially motivated ‘hate speech’, people would take less issue with banning her. Yet again, it seems to me that people will make excuses for those engaging in transphobia and, in effect, seek to enable them in expressing such viewpoints. Is there any wonder trans people feel marginalised and angry?
In situations like this, it also seems that the emphasis of the argument is immediately hijacked in favour of the person expressing the intolerance. All the debate seems to focus on is how terrible it is that the rights of the person being ‘no-platformed’ are being so trampled, or alternatively that people are seeking to ‘silence’ them. Why is it that people so quickly lose slight of the fact that what these people are saying is intolerant bigotry that seeks to denigrate or hurt others?
Yet again, it seems to me that people will make excuses for those engaging in transphobia and, in effect, seek to enable them in expressing such viewpoints
. Is there any wonder trans people feel marginalised and angry?
When we object to people being no-platformed, what are we actually objecting to? We’re not objecting to people expressing new ideas or philosophies; we’re objecting to people who, like Greer herself, make slurs against oppressed groups – arguing that trans women are ‘ghastly parodies’, for example. It staggers me that the LGBTQ+ community at large does not wholeheartedly object to this. Why are we keener to leap to the defence of people attacking part of our community than we are to rally behind members of our community itself?
All this talk of ‘curtailing rights’ is one-sided and fundamentally selfish. Anyone familiar with the tenets of Citizenship education will be acquainted with the whole concept of linking ‘rights’ with ‘reponsibilities’. Is it too much to think that grown adults, nay even educated academic writers, should be expected to grasp the concept that their right to express their opinion should be tempered by accepting their responsibility for the impact of their words? Transphobia pervades our society – anyone who denies that is either woefully ignorant or wilfully blind. Academics who put forward positions that denigrate trans people provide legitimate and almost ‘respectable’ currency to transphobia, and they really should know better. Don’t cry about your ‘rights’ being curtailed when you refuse to live up to your responsibility for the impact of your words.
Why are we keener to leap to the defence of people attacking part of our community than we are to rally behind members of our community itself?
While we’re on the subject of ‘rights’, it’s important to note that rights work both ways. No one is ‘owed’ a platform for their views, not even Germaine Greer. Just as much as one can argue that she has a ‘right’ to express her views, equally institutions and the individuals charged with making decisions on behalf of them have a right to decide that those views have no place there. To those who argue that such decisions set worrying precedents because they involve people making judgement calls concerning which views are ‘better’ than others, I would say it all boils down to [deep breath] common sense. Yes, common sense is not just something wielded by UKIP to justify their bigotry; it can be used by the rest of us too. Institutions such as universities need to be places where everyone feels welcome, and those who run them need to consider that when making their decisions. I would argue that just as you can easily make the decision not to enable racism by not inviting speakers whose views on race are intolerant, equally you can make the same the judgement regarding transphobes. It’s not setting a dangerous precedent; it’s actually just doing the decent thing.
Academics who put forward positions that denigrate trans people provide legitimate and almost ‘respectable’ currency to transphobia, and they really should know better.
I also find myself increasingly intolerant of those who would argue that ‘no-platforming’ is wrong because it is ‘silencing’ voices. This is a pretty offensive argument when applied to this situation. Our society silences the voices of many groups, including (and this is not an exhaustive list) trans people, trans people of colour, those who are gender-queer, asexual or intersex. ‘No-platforming’ Germaine Greer would not be ‘silencing’; it would actually be doing something to address an imbalance. Someone like Greer enjoys far more privilege than a trans woman who lives in fear most days of verbal or physical attack just for going to a public bathroom. Who do you think is the real victim of oppression here? I’ll give you a clue – it’s not the white cis academic. I wonder if so many cis people would be in favour of the ‘we should still debate her in public’ argument if they were the ones living in fear of their lives when they visit the toilet? As I said earlier, there’s no wonder trans people feel rightfully angry about how cis people fail to take this seriously.
Oh, I know – it’s political correctness gone mad. Yes, that’s the new way of denigrating those who seek to reduce open expressions of bigotry and intolerance; either that or calling them ‘the loony left’, and then following it up with a predictable quip about how undemocratic we are. However, it is this view that I think we should really be worried about, as opposed to worrying about people ‘policing’ which opinions are permissible. Put simply: those who bemoan ‘political correctness gone mad’ are actually the undemocratic ones – it’s almost as if the pressure to not be politically correct has become the new ‘political correctness’. Consider how much members of society, not to mention a worryingly high proportion of gay men, put figures such as Katie Hopkins on a pedestal for ‘telling it like it is’. What does it say of us as a society if we’re prepared to champion people for denigrating others (and defend their right to) more than we’re willing to stand up for those they oppress?
Someone like Greer enjoys far more privilege than a trans woman who lives in fear most days of verbal or physical attack just for going to a public bathroom. Who do you think is the real victim of oppression here?
I fully support the ‘no-platforming’ of transphobes. I’d rather be called ‘undemocratic’ than stand by and enable the spread of bigotry.
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