Julie Bindel’s short Guardian video, ‘Sorry, we can’t ban everything that offends you’ (here), has now received nearly four and a half million views. It is just the latest in a long line of publications raising concern that free speech in British universities is being undermined by an intolerant student Left (see here and here). The video, however, is fundamentally confused. Not only does Bindel conflate ‘no platforming’ with censorship, she seems to have little understanding of free speech at all. I don’t mean to be dismissive; Julie Bindel has certainly done more for women’s rights than I, a heterosexual man, am ever likely to do and she will be able to understand oppression in ways that I cannot hope to. In this particular case, however, it is clear that she has got it terribly wrong.
The video begins with Bindel citing the petition to ban Donald Trump from entering the UK, the 2015 NUS Women’s Conference debate over whether to ban cross-dressing as fancy dress and her personal experience of being no-platformed by student unions. Later, she calls attention to Roosh V, the ‘pro-rape pickup artist’ who was forced to cancel his nationwide ‘men only’ events amidst security concerns. If these examples are supposed to demonstrate the worrying normalisation of censorship, they are an odd choice.
Take Bindel’s personal experience of being no-platformed. Bindel is unapologetically transphobic (see here for her work and here for a diagnosis) and in response student unions around the country have refrained from inviting her to (or have uninvited her from) speaking at events. Being no-platformed, however, is very different from being censored. When the Telegraph refuses to publish my articles I am not being censored, I am simply being denied a platform. I am only censored if I am prevented from publishing articles myself (in my own newspaper or on my own blog), that is, if I am denied the right to use my own platform. Student unions do not stop Bindel from publishing whatever she likes and neither do they prevent students from reading her publications. There is something quite absurd about a well-known public figure using a leading paper’s website to name herself as a victim of the new culture of censorship.
It might be thought that no-platforming, even if it’s not censorship, is still problematic. Surely student unions have a duty to invite speakers with all outlooks, whether they agree with them or not, because, in vice-chancellor Louise Richardson’s words, “education is not meant to be comfortable.” But the fact is that when a university invites a speaker, they legitimise or normalise that speaker’s point of view. In inviting Germaine Greer, for instance, the university effectively says ‘look, we know you’re intensely transphobic, but we’re happy to put that aside’. This sends the message that transphobia is, although not admirable, not particularly serious. Greer therefore misses the point when she says of her controversial Cardiff lecture “I am not even going to talk about the issue [transphobia] they are on about” (see here). At least if she was going to discuss her transphobia, the university may avoid implicitly condoning her views. If the event was arranged correctly (not as a lecture – this is vital) it might even be seen to be challenging them. I obviously can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I’m aware that many of the student Left are happy to put views on trial; what they object to is the tacit recognition of these views as acceptable.
The petition to ban Donald Trump from the UK and the hostility directed at Roosh V are odd examples because they are clearly not cases where freedom of speech is at risk. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to say whatever you like to whoever you like in any way you like. Very few people care about having that kind freedom (after all, what good does it do?). Freedom of speech is rather the freedom to speak truth to power. It was this freedom that was so important to the civil rights campaigners that Bindel mentions in her video. On no understanding of ‘truth’ or ‘power’ does Trump have a right to demonise Muslims and Mexicans, or Roosh V a right to claim that the threat of rape is good for women. We might worry whether we can reliably distinguish between speaking truth and speaking bullshit, and indeed there will always be problem cases where it is probably best to err on the side of caution. However, not every case is a problem case. Neither the power dynamic between Trump and those he abuses nor the falsity of his claims is uncertain. The fact that we cannot always recognise an illness doesn’t mean that we should not treat the illness when we see it.
Bindel stresses in her video that “banning people from publicly stating their views does not make those views disappear” and to some extent this is true; Roosh V is not suddenly going to change his views on rape just because he can’t voice them – though of course, only the most naïve optimist will believe that Roosh V will change his mind if we argue with him. Banning people from publicly stating their views does, however, make those views less dangerous. 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted every single year because of toxic masculinity, male entitlement and the hyper-sexualisation of young girls and women. Roosh V’s public platform normalises all three of these causes of sexual violence. Likewise, banning Trump from publicly stating his racism will not make him any less racist, but it will result in fewer hate crimes (see here). By all means, let’s show “rational resistance” to those we come across with disgusting views, but there’s no need to give them a microphone first.
Finally, to be thorough, I’d like to note that Bindel’s objection to the 2015 NUS Women’s Conference debate is highly ironic. Within almost the same breath she condemns censorship and implies that the debate ought not to have taken place. Perhaps she will reply that she was simply ridiculing the suggestion that cross-dressing as fancy dress should be banned, that she thought the debate had an obvious conclusion, but this does her no favours. It is not at all obvious whether cross-dressing as fancy dress is appropriative and offensive or a celebration and reinforcement of gender fluidity (see Helen Lewis’ New Statesman article on this here); surely it seems sensible to hear what people who are transgender have to say rather than presuming to know best.
In sum, Bindel fails to understand that we don’t owe her a platform, that we are not required to tolerate her prejudice and that freedom of speech is not the freedom to abuse the already marginalised. Progressive politics is of course indebted to Bindel for much of her work, but it is developing. It’s a shame she doesn’t want to join us for the ride.