The freedom to say women matter

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

George Orwell

Orwell’s famous quote on liberty has always sounded to me like something an abusive father would use to justify over-disciplining a child. Superior, self-pitying (why is it always me who has to deal in these home truths?), tactless (no, you have to hear this, I don’t care what it does to you), it is practically a patriarchal mission statement. It assumes that things “people don’t want to hear” — you’re worthless, you’re an object, you don’t exist — don’t have the power to make people less free. It assumes knowledge of why people don’t want to listen (can’t handle the truth, can’t argue back, just can’t face it, can you?). Those who don’t want you to speak are positioned as petulant children. It is how abusers think of those who ask them to stop.

I’ve felt all this about the current hot topic of free speech in British universities. To be clear, I am not on the side of young, white, middle-class students who seek to no platform women who’ve got more integrity and compassion in their little fingers than these students have ever shown in their lives. However, I don’t think these students are merely petulant children who don’t know what they’re doing or can’t stand debate. To me this just doesn’t ring true. Perhaps some of them are weak, but those shouting the loudest are the ones who are chairing societies. They’re ambitious, if ignorant, mini-politicians (and since when has ignorance got in the way of a successful political career?).

You don’t become chair of a university feminist society by caring the most about women. It’s not a position handed out on the basis of empathy or principles. It’s a political goal. It’s CV points. Anyone who’s been a feminist while at university knows this and anyone who hasn’t could easily guess. Attacks on Julie Bindel or Germaine Greer seem to me plain old status building and point scoring, with a bonus dash of privilege laundering thrown in. There’s no engagement because there’s not meant to be any. Vilifying older women wins prizes. It always has.

The endless repetition of certain key phrases — “you’re erasing me!” “stop denying my right to exist!” “I don’t feel safe!” — while in the presence of outspoken women is clearly a good tactic. It taps into broader cultural fears about the danger of women getting out of control. The students who join in with all this might seem slightly unaware but it’s the Boris Johnson effect: deep down they’re hard as nails. They really don’t give a shit. Moreover, they believe – erroneously, one would hope – that if they misuse terms such as “intersectionality” and “marginalisation” often enough it will make their own crushing privilege invisible to all.

For instance, Tim Squirrell, white, male former president of the Cambridge Union, has the sheer fucking nerve to suggest that when men like him attack feminists, they speak for the underdog:

Every time you invite someone like Germaine Greer on to campus, or someone who disagrees with the rights of sex workers to do their work, or a racist or a homophobe, you’re not endorsing their views, but you’re legitimating their views as something that’s up for discussion. There’s a place for that discussion, but the question of whether it should happen in people’s homes is a difficult one. Greer doesn’t think trans women are real women. These are not abstract issues. They affect real people.

So a white male Oxbridge hack compares feminists to racists and homophobes on the basis that such women might question a man’s right to purchase sexual access to women’s bodies while also daring to think that “woman” is more than an idea male people have. Just whose precious needs are being prioritised here? Men’s, it would seem, especially men who can’t bear to think that a trans woman could have anything in common with his own big, dominant, alpha male self. It is pathetic and yet this is the stuff that should make women feel unsafe. After all, it’s the status quo – it’s where all women are positioned right now, beneath the ignorant, chest-thumping pseudo-liberalism of men such as Squirrell – and if that doesn’t make you terrified, you need to look harder.

Squirrell’s quote comes in a piece which places the silencing of “bad” feminists alongside the cancelling of an Oxford debate on abortion because both participants were men, Dundee University banning the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child from its freshers’ fair, certain universities removing The Sun due to the presence of Page 3 and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines not being played on campuses across the land. But such bans are not the same as the no-platforming of feminist speakers.* This isn’t one big overwhelming “free speech and right to debate” issue. Stamping on misogyny is not the same as stamping on those who challenge misogyny. If there was universal acceptance that women were people, this wouldn’t even need to be said, yet it is being suggested that feminism must somehow be forever hoist by its own petard. Don’t like Blurred Lines? Pro-censorship, that’s you. That means I’ll have to stop you from saying you don’t like Blurred Lines in the first place. Want the right to be heard? Okay, so does Robin Thicke. What do you mean this isn’t fair? According to this logic “free speech” must always mean no more than “listening to the people who’ve already got the floor and aren’t ever going to give it up.” People who have much in common with Tim Squirrell.

How hard is it to say that some words feed into structural inequalities and some words don’t? And how hard is it to have some basic principles — women are human beings, not ideas, not sexual objects — to refer to when deciding what causes real harm and what doesn’t? The problem in the particular instances I’ve referred to is not one of free speech at all; it is one of misogyny. It is the misogyny of Tim Squirrel when he defends the right of men to buy sex while denying women as a class any self-definition, but also the misogyny of Robin Thicke when he churns out all his rapist lines while surrounding his fully clothed self with naked women. One says “shut up, feminists,” the other “speak up, misogynists.” To both women remain no more than a male fantasy — hey Robin, meet Tim. You’d get on just great.

I don’t think there is an easy answer to this other than that the words of the feminists students most want to silence ought to be privileged. Their words are more counter-cultural and more revolutionary than any of your Orwell bullshit. But then that’s the very reason why they’re silenced. Student politicians are drunk on power within their little fiefdoms, practising for all those juicy, exploitative roles to come. Hating women is a good career move, especially if you can mask it as “speaking for the marginalised.” We shouldn’t worry about their ignorance and lack of know-how. We should worry about the immoral, grasping defenders of inequality they’re learning to be. Feminism, if it means anything, means shouting over the braying, privileged voices of those who don’t want the world to change.

*And no, I’m not speaking of a tiny minority of feminists. Feminists think women are people, not ideas or objects. That’s how feminism works.