No platforming is a hot topic, but what do we do when someone opposing one form of hate speech themselves wields it against marginalised people? Is it true that your enemy’s enemy is not your friend? Karen Pollock explores the thorny issues of free speech, a right to be heard and finding common cause.
One of the most difficult debates on the internet centres around listening, and oddly, as a professional listener, it’s one I struggle with. It usually goes like this;
Person Y says something very bigoted.
Person X says that person is harmful for how they spread bigotry and that it’s causing pain to others.
Person Z says that we must listen to person Y because they have the right to an opinion.
Or if that reads like a logic problem, here is a real world example;
Our local anti-Roosh V protest here in the North East is being organised by someone who is vocally transphobic and whorephobic. However, criticisms of this have been met with “She is entitled to her opinions, and to have a platform to express them on. Anyway, this matters more.”
There seems to be a strange conflation here of the right to an opinion (which of course everyone has) and the right to be heard, or to have a platform from which to express that opinion. Not being heard is of course very upsetting for many people. Part of the power of the therapeutic process is being really heard, often for the first time. So we have to be aware of balancing harms; the potential harm caused by the impact of denying a platform and the harm which granting that platform may cause.
With my therapist hat on, I try to understand where the roots of bigotry or hate may come from. When I was training, one of the hardest components of my course was a series of role play therapy sessions. We had to consider which client group we would struggle to demonstrate the core conditions to. After much thought, I realised for me it would be a female paedophile. With my tutor playing the role of client, I had to demonstrate empathy, and unconditional positive regard to a ‘client’ who was willing to transgress all moral and ethical boundaries.
There seems to be a strange conflation here of the right to an opinion (which of course everyone has) and the right to be heard, or to have a platform from which to express that opinion.
To say it was difficult is an understatement. It was also an incredible learning experience. In order to even attempt to enter into the therapeutic relationship, I had to consider how the client (even if in this case it was role play) had ended up where they were. To make the link between someone being abusive now and someone who was themselves at one time a victim is incredibly difficult. It is a balancing act where you hold in one hand the importance of choice in the here and now, and in the other, empathy for the steps which may have led them to those choices. I have to say, my tutor made the process easier by making her character a survivor of abuse, who lacked an understanding of boundaries because of her own experiences.
Therefore, I understand on many different levels the need to understand where an aberrant behaviour may stem from. I do not say that all aberrant behaviours are equal. Indeed, the very core of moral choice is to say X is worse than Y. However, as a class of actions, choosing to indulge in behaviour which harms others can fairly be called aberrant. I suppose I must put a disclaimer here, since social media being what it is, those looking to offend will see offence. I am not saying paedophillia is equivalent to transphobia or whorephobia. I am saying that they belong to a class of actions we might designate as harmful to others (as is drink driving, playing your music loudly late at night or speeding). I bring up the example from my own experience to highlight that I believe, with all my soul, that understanding is vital.
So I can try to have empathy for those whose opinions are harmful. I can look at the young men considering attending the Roosh V event and consider what leads them to that. Speculation actually helps with the development of empathy, as I look at a world which mocks men who are virgins. I can, for example, understand empathically how that translates to anger in an individual. I can also look at a middle-aged lesbian whose identity was formed around being an outsider and speculate on how she must feel to be increasingly establishment and irrelevant. Ten years ago, the slogan ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ was radical and edgy, now the kids are saying ‘why limit your concepts to men and women?’. I believe this is causing a great deal of defensive behaviour from people whose identity was formed about being the outsider.
Empathy is an individualised process. However, this is one of the things which distinguishes it from sympathy. You have sympathy with groups, as your feelings are in tune with the groups. Empathy is a process imbued with understanding, and so can be applied to those whose ideas are very different to your own. It’s why empathy is so often misunderstood.
However, this does not answer the question about platforms, or about the expectation of those who are harmed by aberrant behaviour to confront it or demonstrate public empathy.
Ten years ago, the slogan ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ was radical and edgy, now the kids are saying ‘why limit your concepts to men and women?’.
Another example occurs to me; would you ask a survivor of rape to confront Roosh V or one of his protestors? Whilst I hope the answer is a universal ‘No’, consider that victim reparation schemes, where the victim confronts someone with the impact their actions have had, have been shown to be incredibly effective. One could argue that if the men who choose to demonstrate at Grey’s Monument on Saturday were able to have their own well of empathy accessed, they would be safer to society as a whole. Of course, common decency means we would not expect someone who has suffered harm in such a way to expose themself to those who defend that harm.
Yet, when we speak of the right to a platform, of the need to listen, of the arguments which permeate feminism being simply equal sides of a debate, we do exactly that. We say to people who have been harmed by a certain set of behaviours that they must not only accept those behaviours as valid, but we also ask them to put themselves in the firing line of challenging those behaviours if they want change.
The final question revolves around measuring harms. Like the ingredients in a cake, so much margarine of malice combined with the flour of fury. Comparing harms is next to impossible; what one person brushes off, another is devastated by. This isn’t about one or the other being weak, but rather about their life up to the moment of impact. We see this sometimes in those parents who forgive their child’s killer, while others carry the anger inside until it destroys them. The same act, the same original harm, but very different responses.
There may be many reasons men decide to attend the event on Saturday, including the desire to shock, to be that radical, edgy identity that others lay claim to. I wonder if, rather than a counter demonstration, more harm could be mitigated by asking them quietly what their mother would think of them. However, it is not my experience that men who want to rape women announce it beforehand, and on Saturday night it will be the Street Pastors who do the most work in preventing rape and assault. Speaking out against rape culture of the kind perpetuated by Roosh V and Return of the Kings is certainly important. It causes direct harm by upholding those views of society which dismiss, downplay or excuse the behaviour of rapists.
We say to people who have been harmed by a certain set of behaviours that they must not only accept those behaviours as valid, but we also ask them to put themselves in the firing line of challenging those behaviours if they want change.
The harms perpetuated by TERFs are not abstract either, from denying access to services to victims of rape and domestic violence through to the spousal veto, they are very real. The impact of the criminalisation of sex work is clearly laid out by people like @GlasgaeLauraLee and @NationalUglyMug. I cannot say if there will be more direct harm from the Roosh V event or the fact the counter protest is led by someone who celebrates being transphobic and whorephobic, in a very similar way to how Roosh V celebrates being misogynistic. I do know that I cannot overlook the harms caused by one group to protest the existence of another. I cannot give one bigot a platform because we for a moment share a common enemy.
This Saturday, the anti-Roosh V protest in Newcastle will have to go ahead without me. The fact it is organised by someone who belongs to a class of people who perpetuate harms against others does matter. I can have empathy with why they might do this, understanding of where their own personal journey may have taken them, but still need to say ‘Not in my name.’
Follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz)