Assaults on free speech are led by the left, David Aaronovitch 14.6.18

The original article is here

Let’s start small and then go big. This week the writer Lionel Shriver was turfed off the judging panel of a women’s short-story competition. The reason for her ejection was that she had written something disobliging for The Spectator magazine about a major publisher’s diversity strategy. Shriver is a vivid writer and her views were expressed vividly. Her arguments were a variation on the usual concerns that many people have about the practical application of positive discrimination.

To the organisers of the prize, Mslexia magazine, the expression of this opinion amounted to what we used to call “gross moral turpitude” — sufficient grounds in itself for termination. Mslexia tweeted that “Although we welcome open debate, Shriver’s comments are not consistent with Mslexia’s ethos”. Face palm, as the youngsters say. To paraphrase Orwell, open debate means being able to say stuff inconsistent with ethoses. Or it is not open debate.

Shriver’s a survivor and she can probably do without any more judging (or being judged). But Mslexia’s formulation gave perfect shape to the problem that I’d been thinking about in these past few months as chairman of Index on Censorship, the free speech advocacy organisation. Why is it that some of the people who should be most protective of free speech and actual open debate are now almost hostile to it in practice?

So I’ll take a much less amusing example. Last year the government promised changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) which
would, among other things, give legal status to the gender choice of an individual, rather than to the biological sex that they were born with, without the need for lengthy psychiatric assessment.

Needless to say, such a change would be welcome for many trans people, who would no longer have to prove that they suffered from a nebulous condition dubbed “gender dysphoria”. But you don’t have to be a tabloid leader writer to see that there are some big problems to be dealt with here, some practical, some anthropological, some philosophical. “What,” my sportiest daughter asked, “about women’s sports?” People born biologically male are physically bigger, stronger and faster than biological women. So what about places designed to protect women from the possible consequences of that physical difference? Do we really want to say that we will not see the difference in experience between, crudely, someone with a womb and someone with a willy?

Maybe you do. Maybe I agree. But wouldn’t you also say that if ever there was a case for an “open debate” this was it? You can’t just make a change like this without arguing it through and hearing the other side. Yet that seems to be exactly what many people, largely on the left, want to do.

In my salad days feminists were some of the most admirable people I knew. The cause of women’s equality was not even a quarter won with the suffragettes and it is far from won even now. In the 1970s and 1980s these women were mocked as bra-burners, women’s-libbers, dungaree-wearing dykes and nagging termagants. Now some of these very same people are being ejected Shriver-style from the debate on the GRA for having views inconsistent with the ethos of the New Left.

But this ejection has turned nasty. An organisation pledged to argue against the changes, Women’s Place UK, and some of its leading lights, have been subject to what might be called private persecution. Its meetings are abusively picketed, organisations that let venues for its events are targeted, its speakers are “no platformed” at universities, and its leading lights are abused and threatened.

I don’t even know what my own view is of the GRA, but what I can see is that one side is trying to stop the other from expressing its opinion. It is doing this in the first place by characterising any expression of belief that biological sex is important, as being — and I am not joking — akin to fascist violence.

So the LGBT website Pink News will carry a report of a Women’s Place meeting beginning “Women’s Place UK, which are known to propogate (sic) discrimination against the transgender community, will be hosting an event at Manchester Quaker Meeting Hall this evening.” Debate in itself becomes propagation of discrimination and the pickets turn up. On Twitter someone who says he’s the dad of a trans child tweets “You’ve had your ‘debate’. Let this be the end of it. Let this be the point where good people take notice & say ENOUGH . . . No More institutionalised transphobia. No More ‘debate’. No More hate.”

Feminists who don’t buy the “choose your gender” position have now been classified as “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists”, for whom the hostile acronym “TERF” is widely used. The word’s closeness to “turd” is not accidental. The term is used widely on the left now.

So you can see how dissent has become propagating discrimination, and that has morphed into hate. Over to Bristol university students’ union for the final step in the declension. “Opening the debate,” wrote the student newspaper recently, “FemSoc’s vivacious president made the case for no-platforming, arguing that TERF rhetoric, by encouraging trans-exclusionary legislation, has a ‘direct impact on safety’ for trans people. She cited the frequency with which trans people are murdered as a further argument against accommodating anti-trans activists on campus.”

And thus, in easy, treacherous steps dissent is deemed accessory to murder. It is an utterly pernicious logic. But thus too, in a dazzling paradox, the accusation of “hate speech” proves itself to be sometimes a form of hate speech. It is being deployed to intimidate and to shut people up. The fact that mainstream people in the Labour Party can apparently endorse this logic is supremely depressing.

Increasingly the argument is made that in countries like Britain and the US an agitation for free speech is really an agitation for angry, powerful white men. It is supposedly a licence for them to abuse others.

But the problem is that this argument is both untrue in itself and unhistorical. In this country, as elsewhere, censorship has mostly been used against the inconvenient and the subversive, from the censored plays of Joe Orton 50 years ago to the Sikh woman author of the play Behzti, which was forced out of theatres in 2004. In the US in the McCarthy era, black and progressive playwrights and authors faced Mslexia-style de-sponsorship for being inconsistent with anti-red ethoses. And today, wherever you get a rising ethno-nationalist tide, from Poland to Russia via Turkey, it’s the non-patriotic minorities who end up gagged.

This freedom boat, I’ve realised over the past half decade, is the same boat for all of us, even if we sit in different parts. Sink it, and we’re all drowned. There’s no “but” after “open debate”.

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