Julie Bindel has taken a stand, decrying the fact that censorship has become the new norm. Jonathan Boniface offers his perspective on why she’s not only wrong, but fighting the wrong fight.
I’ve had to take a day to muse on the latest offering from Julie Bindel – the Guardian weekly opinion video ‘Sorry, we can’t ban everything that offends you.’ I suppose I could sum it up with a sigh and a hearty ‘oh dear’ but that wouldn’t be particularly insightful, so let’s consider in a little more detail why it so badly misses the point.
The tone is pretty much set from the title, ‘Sorry, we can’t ban everything that offends you.’ Let’s be frank – if Bindel was a man, we’d already be accusing her of mansplaining. But she’s not a man and we can’t apply that privileged position to her, so let’s leave that one. I guess, at the least, we can say it’s patronising. But hang on, let’s just go back to the privilege argument for a moment; actually, she does enjoy the privilege of being educated, white and cis. Perhaps she’s doing those who don’t share her privilege a service by striving to educate them? Ok I admit, my tone was positively dripping with sarcasm there, but the point still remains. For me, this conjures an image of her patting a trans woman lightly on the hand and saying ‘there, there, stop making a fuss…’
In this video, Julie Bindel is quick to point out that she has been no platformed by those who claim they would be traumatised by her words, whilst having not even read her work. Well, I have read some of Bindel’s work. Not all of it, admittedly, but what I have read of her published views on trans people, and trans women in particular, has shown a depressing tendency to focus on genitalia, wrapped up in the tired old ‘rapist in a dress’ analogy, and a healthy (sic) dose of ‘will someone not think of the children’ thrown in for good measure – there’s even a pointed reference to FGM in one of her articles on gender reassignment surgery, which goes on to refer to gender reassignment surgery as ‘unnecessary mutilation’. This is when she’s not moving into the realm of the ridiculous with statements such as: ‘Using human rights laws to normalise transsexualism has resulted in a backwards step in the feminist campaign for gender equality. Perhaps we should give up and become men.’ Incredulity aside, how good of Julie Bindel to define what should be ‘normalised’ and which groups should enjoy the privilege of protection by human rights laws.
In any case, anyone familiar with Bindel’s writings will recognise this as well-trodden ground, but my point in considering them is simply so I can say ‘yes, I have read some of your work’ and ‘yes, I can understand why people would find your views offensive’. No, I’m not traumatised by her views, but then I’m not the one in her firing line. On that point, let’s also consider employing some basic respect while telling people to pull themselves together, which is essentially what she’s doing here. Quite apart from the patronising tone and title of this video, another frankly silly touch is the comedic black and white image of a ‘traumatised’ woman that flashes up while Bindel is making her point. I accept that this could be nothing more than a ‘production value’ in this pithy 2 minute video, but it seems like a pretty childish way to make a point. What it does is demean the fact that people could be traumatised, or disturbed by something.
Incredulity aside, how good of Julie Bindel to define what should be ‘normalised’ and which groups should enjoy the privilege of protection by human rights laws.
I admit, I’ve been sceptical in the past about the capacity of the spoken word to trigger traumatic responses. I consider myself a pretty a resilient person – I have my weaknesses and chinks in my ‘armour’, i.e., those little things that get to you and get under your skin but, having worked a secondary school for many years, I have pretty tough shell. That said, I think back to an event I attended last year where I heard a number of people talk about their own experience of situations similar to something I’d lived through in one of the darker periods in my life. I was rather taken aback by how uncomfortable it made me – in that sense, it triggered something. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I was traumatised, but something uncomfortable was most definitely ‘triggered’.
That said, what I experienced here was nowhere near as uncomfortable as the impact upon me had I been trans and listening to Julie Bindel espouse her views on trans women. When you consider the systemic prejudice towards and discrimination of trans people in our society, I think I can empathise with trans people finding transphobia wrapped up as academic discourse pretty threatening, even traumatic. The point really is, who is Julie Bindel to mock people for their reactions? As this risk of sound cliché, you’ve probably seen a well-shared internet meme that states ‘Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.’ Don’t mock people for finding the promotion of discrimination traumatic, or for seeking to minimise the spread of it, when you don’t understand what they’ve been through.
Other handy images that pop up to support Bindel’s view are drawn from the American Civil Rights movement, and the campaign for LGBTQ+ rights, Bindel’s point being that such movements did not make their advancements by silencing debate but by engaging with hate and defeating it on merit. Gosh, this is such a charming academic notion – it would almost be persuasive if it wasn’t so utopian. There are many objections here, not least the appropriation of two civil / human rights movements by someone who objected to human rights protections for trans people, but also how the completely farcical the comparison is in terms of power and privilege. The way Bindel expresses this it’s almost as if she’s suggestion that these groups had the ability to ‘silence’ or ‘censor’ those who oppressed them, or that they ‘chose’ to hear their opponents and engage with them. They didn’t. People of colour didn’t have the opportunity to ‘silence’ those who tried to oppress them before, during (and subsequent to) the civil rights movement; likewise, LGBTQ+ people didn’t have the opportunity. Neither group enjoyed that privilege and people from both groups
were are oppressed, beaten and killed. But just because these groups didn’t have that opportunity to shut down those oppressors in the past, why should we deny that opportunity to others in what is supposed to be a more enlightened age?
Don’t mock people for finding the promotion of discrimination traumatic, or for seeking to minimise the spread of it, when you don’t understand what they’ve been through.
The problem is that Bindel is clinging to the detached, lofty standpoint that engagement with hate speech is the solution to discrimination. But time and time again it has been shown that this doesn’t work. This is the sort of intellectual naïvety that often befuddles those who assume academic superiority over others. Human beings are flawed individuals who won’t ’see the light’ and reject bigotry just because someone has explained why it’s wrong – it doesn’t work like that. There are many ways in which our society challenges bigotry – are we really supposed to accept the view that people who stubbornly cling to their bigotry, their racism, their homophobia, etc, have simply been immune to all those influences? Of course they haven’t. In short, simply putting the opposite view isn’t enough, sorry.
But not to be dissuaded, Bindel went further – opposing calls to bans Donald Trump and Roosh V from the UK. She went on to explore the issue of Roosh V even further, arguing that banning him from the UK will do nothing to stop the fact that an estimated 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted every year. I agree, it doesn’t stop that, but surely spending more time and energy tackling the reasons for rape and supporting the victims is more important than decrying the perceived censorship of a man who says that legalising rape would make women ‘more careful with their bodies’? Her argument is that banning him blinds us to the existence of the attitudes that he articulates. Here, she yet again loses the argument – to imagine that we’re all floating through life in a little bubble not realising that these people exist until they pop up, make us grab our pearls and demand their banning, is incredibly patronising.
Human beings are flawed individuals who won’t ’see the light’ and reject bigotry just because someone has explained why it’s wrong – it doesn’t work like that.
In fact, Bindel is actually doing the victims of rape and sexual assault a disservice with her position on this. We don’t need to provide Roosh V with a platform for his views, to them allow us to demonstrate that rape and sexual assault are wrong. This is because debating him will make no difference to those who already believe that he is right. Anyone who feels entitled enough to behave in such a heinous manner is hardly going to be amenable to changing their position as a result of a well-mannered debate in a plush university hall – they will ignore the opposing view. What is actually far more powerful is proceed from the position that some things are just so unacceptable that they don’t deserve to be dignified, and this is one of them. It was heartening to watch the parliamentary debate that dealt with this issue because it showed all sides of the political spectrum united in their desire to send a message, clearly and unequivocally, that this view no place in the UK. Sometimes, it’s much more powerful to simply ‘this is not acceptable’ than it is to reason with the unreasonable.
Ultimately, Julie Bindel sinks her own argument with one last, extraordinary notion – ‘Unless someone is breaking the law by inciting a crime with their words, I believe it a crime NOT to hear them.’ Dealing with the constituent parts of this statement in reverse order, I admit I struggle with the notion that not hearing someone speak could be considered a crime. It’s almost as if Bindel is suggesting that we have a responsibility to hear views that strike against the core of what it means to live in a civilised society. This seems to be at odds with her views regarding freedom of speech – is there not a contradiction within a notion of freedom that compels you to listen to objectionable views? That aside, it would be interesting to know exactly what, in Bindel’s view, constitutes ‘inciting a crime’. Surely allowing a pro-rape campaigner the right to come to this country and extol the virtues of sexual assault falls under the category of inciting violence against women?
Surely spending more time and energy tackling the reasons for rape and supporting the victims is more important than decrying the perceived censorship of a man who says that legalising rape would make women ‘more careful with their bodies’?
In short, this is all simply an exercise in the academic wringing of hands – the sort of arguments based on lofty theorising, devolved from the concerns of the real world whilst appropriating real world issues and concerns to make half-baked points. This video smacks more of a frustrated person having a desperate pop at a world that would rather not hear her, a world that tempers the right to free speech with a responsibility not to hurt others needlessly.
When the Guardianistas have finished wringing their hands over people objecting to privileged, white, cis people with hateful views being told to be quiet, they might want to look around at the everyday people suffering because of
hate speech debate. Just a thought.
Ultimately, my response (or maybe challenge) to Julie Bindel is simply this: instead of putting your time and energy into a campaign telling people not to ‘censor’ those with abhorrent views, why not put it into a campaign directed against those attempt to spread such views in the first place?
Follow Jonathan on Twitter (@gaes_elskhugi)