Minister Jo Johnson threatens to fine universities for not “allowing free speech” and BBC News uncritically wheels out Julie Bindel on Boxing day to support the Tory. Sam Hope explores the growing phenomenon of “free speech” authoritarianism, and how it relates to familiar family dynamics
There’s a power dynamic that plays out at dinner tables across the land over the festive season. It’s the one where someone relatively high up in the pecking order of the family or social hierarchy tries to assert their dominance by saying something they know others at the table will find wildly inappropriate and uncomfortable. Often a family elder or an adult cis-het man, they rely on the expectation that others are expected to do the emotional labour of managing the mess their comment creates.
This year at my in-laws it was one middle-aged man talking about bringing back national service because “young people today are all lazy”. A friend reported her brother talking about how men are cleverer than women because “they have bigger brains” (not clever enough, apparently, to know that this theory was disproved in the 1890s). The opinions are never useful conversation pieces; that’s not their function. Their function is to say something awful about someone lower down the social pecking order, thus establishing their social dominance.
There is no winning here, other than to roll your eyes, change the subject and not indulge the person in their game. Because if you argue with them, they will quickly create an atmosphere in which they pretend that you are creating trouble by disagreeing with them, and that they are, of course, entitled to their opinion.
they rely on the expectation that others are expected to do the emotional labour of managing the mess their comment creates
There is an expectation that people lower in a social hierarchy (e.g. women, people of colour, younger people, queers) will do the bulk of the emotional labour. The instigator may claim to be entitled to behave however they like without consequences, whereas the people affected by, and often abused by, their behaviour will bear full responsibility for any ensuing tensions.
“You know what he’s like,” peacemaking relatives will say. “Just don’t take the bait.” Everyone knows it’s a game and colludes with the person playing it to give them control. It could all be stopped in a second with a firm and collective: “don’t start, Dad” or “shut up, Nan,” but that never happens because that would mean altering the social hierarchy – which would require acknowledging it exists.
So I’m sorry to the family scapegoats everywhere to say it will often be you alone that challenges, you won’t be backed up, you won’t achieve anything and you will almost certainly be blamed.
they will quickly create an atmosphere in which they pretend that you are creating trouble by disagreeing with them
It’s not fair, because we live in a hierarchical society that dysfunctionally thrives on social inequality, and these inequalities are rarely allowed to be made visible.
Other manifestations of this will be the degree to which cis relatives are allowed to “struggle” with dealing with a trans relative (e.g. using their new name or pronouns), and how little a trans relative is allowed to show any signs of the struggle they go through just staying alive and with mental wellbeing intact through the average family Christmas.
This dynamic is nothing new. It’s an authoritarian tool that’s worked throughout the ages to establish social dominance. The tactic is the bread and butter of people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, and other more minor players like Boris and Jo Johnson, Julie Bindel and Milo Yiannopoulos, who gain themselves power with this same trick your Nana uses at the Christmas dinner table:
Step 1: say something awful about a group of people with less social power than you.
Step 2: Blame whatever ensuing protests on the protesters lack of moral fibre, resilience, personal qualities or whatever, really. The point is, because they are beneath you in the hierarchy, they bear the burden of the emotional labour. Meaning by your rules they must engage with what you say, treat it as reasonable even if it’s not, treat it as non-abusive even if it is, and above all acknowledge your right to “free speech” and “entitlement to your opinion” even though I assure you these rights are not reciprocated. So, your nasty Great Aunt Gertie can call refugees “cockroaches” which is truly terrible, but if you call her difficult and unpleasant (which, by the way, she is), the whole family will turn on you. Because emotional labour is your job, remember?
Likewise, someone (ahem, Bellos, Bindel, Ditum, Long et al) can get an enormous platform all over the media for actively campaigning against the civil rights of trans people, in the process contravening the Equality Act 2010, and this is a “free speech” issue. But those protesting this abusive hatred will have no such freedom of reply. Even the word we call them, “TERFs” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), is labelled as hate speech. They pretend they are being silenced whilst spouting their toxicity daily from their sizeable media platforms.
Platforms they gained by attacking minorities then falsely claiming victimhood when people exercised their fast diminishing right to protest the hateful behaviour.
They pretend they want a debate but they never respond to any counter-arguments, and the media takes pains not to put any of these arguments forward. Just like the “debate” about young people at my Christmas dinner table, the aim is not discussion, but power and control.
The tedious debate about no-platfoming is explicitly designed to put young people in their place and make them more passive recipients of whatever racist, phobic bile their elders want to fill their heads with. Every revolution starts within the student body, and the comfortable elite need to find ways to crush even the slightest hint of students having a real voice within their own learning spaces.
your nasty Great Aunt Gertie can call refugees “cockroaches” which is truly terrible, but if you call her difficult and unpleasant (which, by the way, she is), the whole family will turn on you
Paint them as snowflakes all you like, but such manifest fear of students having their own ideas makes Johnson, Bindel and the other “free speechers” look cowardly. They don’t want to face the consequences of their speech. They don’t want to deal with their scapegoats uniting to fight back.
And those who sit back and watch this, and don’t protest the scapegoating of students, trans people, or whichever minority Uncle Ted is picking on at the dinner table, are ultimately to blame. They’re the ones who can really change things – the bystanders.
There is a surefire way of stopping this tactic in its tracks. It’s really easy. Name what’s happening. Tell Uncle Ted he needs to stop dropping incendiary comments into the conversation and deliberately trying to wind everyone up. Tell Johnson that curtailing protest is the very threat to free speech he is trying to prevent. And as for Bindel, if one journalist had done their homework about the real issues, they would have her on her knees in seconds.
Every revolution starts within the student body, and the comfortable elite need to find ways to crush even the slightest hint of students having a real voice within their own learning spaces
I offer the following potential angles of challenge, because if we’re going to have a “free speech” debate worthy of universities, let’s inject some rigour:
Journalist: You seem a bit obsessed with minority groups like sex workers and trans people. Is there any particular reason you don’t spend more time directly fighting people with more power?
Journalist: You say you’re being silenced, but you’re actually gaining a bigger and bigger audience from these stunts, aren’t you? This controversy sells books, no?
Journalist: You keep using the word “censorship”, but that word doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means.
Journalist: Have your ideas been peer reviewed? Do you have any endorsement of their academic rigour? It seems to me that these ideas could be found in any tabloid so students will already have been exposed to them; what value would they add to academic learning?
Journalist: I understand you consider yourself a radical feminist, and I am wondering how your demand to be allowed to speak fits with the government’s Prevent agenda, which seeks to ensure ideas that could radicalise young people are not allowed a platform in universities? I note you’ve never spoken out against Prevent, even though it seems to run counter to your championing of free speech, and I wonder why?
Journalist: Here you are on the BBC on Boxing Day claiming that choosing not to endorse a speaker is censorship. Isn’t that a bit dangerous? Does it not mean that anyone, no matter how hateful or academically bankrupt, may force their speech on an unwilling audience by insisting they should be booked for speaking engagements? Does your right to free speech mean I have to listen to you? The only way your argument would be logical is if universities hired everyone to speak and housed every single book in their libraries. They don’t. They are by definition selective about what constitutes a valuable contribution to academic thought. And by definition, in a non-authoritarian society, that selection process should be up for debate. You seem to be arguing, therefore, that young people should have no agency or influence over their academies.
Journalist: Isn’t the real issue here that students have realised your thinking is outdated and has no place in academia? Surely this is just a case of the younger generation wising up to old fashioned ideas that have had their day?
But journalists no longer do their homework or develop rigorous or insightful arguments, and the only “controversial” ideas that are given a platform are the ones that seek to maintain the social hierarchy as it is.
Free speech as it is currently being peddled is authoritarianism dressed up as democracy. “You will listen to me and indulge me for I am your elder!” is what it amounts to. It’s no more than an elaborate version of everyone’s Christmas dinner nightmare and we need to wise up to this manipulative game of power and control.
Follow Sam on Twitter (@Sam_R_Hope)