Content warning: This post discusses transmisogyny and whorephobia, as well as mentioning some well-known perpetrators of these forms of oppression
Yesterday’s Observer carried a letter, signed by over a hundred people, complaining about the use of no platforms and generally questioning authority. The letter was full of myths and misdirection, which Sarah Brown has dispelled, and it’s shameful that the Guardian-Observer decided to publish without even the most basic fact-checking.
The letter, and the politics behind it, have been thoroughly demolished by Sara Ahmed, and I strongly recommend you read her article in its entirety, because she’s taken it down so completely that I don’t need to repeat much here. I wish simply to add some things that have struck me about the letter and its signatories.
I find myself repeatedly drifting back to the publicity surrounding the film The Interview. The film looked awful, and therefore there was little interest in it, right up until Sony announced they were pulling it because of some nebulous reasoning surrounding North Korea. At this, people who had shown no interest in a film they hadn’t seen sprung into action, screaming FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Shortly after, the film was released, and made available on Netflix, turning a certain flop into a cash cow.
We know that Kate Smurthwaite’s show was similarly cancelled largely due to poor ticket sales: Goldsmith’s Comedy Society said only eight people had booked to see the show. Since the cancellation of the show, Smurthwaite has been on Newsnight bemoaning her plight, and columns have been written, and connections have been forged among the media class. Had the show gone ahead, Smurthwaite might have mildly amused eight people for an evening. Its cancellation, on the other hand, has made her a star because FREEDOM OF SPEECH.
Likewise, two of the signatories who are well known for being violent transmisogynistic bigots* have been publicising an event they are putting on off the back of this letter. And guess what the theme is? How no-platforms are evil and bad.
Bluntly put, crying CENSORSHIP and framing issues as a precious FREEDOM OF SPEECH concern can be fairly good publicity, as it means that contrarians will be more likely to go and see something objectively crap to spite a shadowy conspiracy of possibly-imaginary enemies. I predict that Bindel and Yardley will do a fake-out cancellation of their event at some point before it takes place because the lure of this tactic is so strong.
The other point I noticed about the signatories is their roles. The signatories fall under three broad strands of career: academics, paid campaigners and journalists. All of these careers are fairly used to what I would call a captive audience. The journalists write their columns and it’s there, it’s published, and if you’re reading the newspaper it’s in, you’re probably going to have to read it, or if you’re clicking through the website, it’ll be right there on the front page. The only power we have to avoid this is to skip over the page, a quiet and solitary act of dissent. A similar thing is true of paid campaigners: they’re the ones approached for quotes; their relationship with the journalists is symbiotic. Meanwhile, academics lecture from their comfy platforms, safe in the knowledge that if their students skip out, they’ll probably fail the degree they’re paying a lot of money to do.
People who occupy these platforms are not used to being told “no, I don’t want to hear you”, because the way that their platform is structured means that usually this is not an option. It must instill them with an enormous sense of entitlement, as it does for anyone who is not used to hearing the word “no”.
The means for event organisers–young grassroots feminists, for the most part–to control who enters their environment must feel like a threat to those with this sense of entitlement. Of course they lash out; they are used to captive audiences, not those who express a choice as to whether to listen to them or not. Grassroots feminism got stronger, got more capable of enforcing its own boundaries and those who believe that everyone should listen to them are furious.
I’m really proud to see the hard work being done by young grassroots feminism with no-platforming and speaking out against nastiness. I hope they are not put off by the roar of a dinosaur that has just noticed the vast meteor hurtling towards it, threatened by the possibility of losing the ability to preach to a captive audience and make money off them. Feminism is moving forwards, and the Observer letter has provided us with a handy list of baggage to leave behind.
*Apparently “TERf” is a slur, so I’m trying something a little bit different.