Freedom of Speech (2): no-platforming as protest

[Transcript of podcast created 12 October 2018]

Hello, I’m Betty McLellan for Radical Feminist Reflections.

     In Part 1 of this three-part series on Freedom of Speech, I spoke of free speech as an important principle of democracy. I lamented the fact that today this principle is being distorted and used by many as an excuse to indulge in hate speech, and reiterated the fact that speech and actions designed to do harm to others run counter to the original intention of the principle of free speech.

     Now, in Part 2, I want to focus on another principle of democracy, which undoubtedly is a free speech issue, and that is, the right to protest – and discuss that in relation to what has come to be known as “no-platforming” or, as some say, de-platforming.


This is Freedom of Speech Part 2 – where I ask “Is the call to no-platform someone an affront to free speech or a legitimate form of protest?”

First, an explanation of no-platforming for those who aren’t clear. It is, in fact, the denial of an opportunity to speak – to someone whose views you don’t agree with. It occurs when a person has been invited to speak, in other words, given a platform to air their opinions – at a University, or other public venue, or in the mainstream media. And a group who oppose that person’s views protest loudly and publicly, insisting that the venue (or platform) cancel the invitation. This is called no-platforming.

     Feminists, especially radical feminists, are regularly no-platformed: Sheila Jeffreys, Julie Bindel, Janice Raymond, Germaine Greer, Linda Bellos and others, and we rightly object to that. (I’ll say more about the no-platforming of radical feminists later).

     Also, there are protests by feminists and other Human Rights advocates against some alt-right figures seeking a platform to stir up hatred against immigrants, refugees and others.

     Again, feminists and other women call for the no-platforming of entertainers, rappers, speakers whose so-called “entertainment” includes joking about rape and all forms of men’s violence against women; in fact, encouraging men to show their dominance over women by use of such violence. There are many examples of the no-platforming of feminists and no-platforming by feminists.

     Right now, I want to give a few examples of the call to no-platform someone, both in mainstream society and in feminist circles, before moving on to ask: Is the call for no-platforming a legitimate form of protest in a democracy that believes so strongly in the right to free speech?”

So, a couple of examples of no-platforming, first, by mainstream Australia:

     In the recent past, early August 2018, the Australian far-right activist, Blair Cottrell, leader of the United Patriots Front, proud neo-nazi, perpetrator of violence against women, found guilty in court of “inciting contempt, revulsion or ridicule of Muslims”, was given a platform to repeat his racist, hate-filled views in an interview on Rupert Murdoch’s SkyNews TV channel. So loud was the furore in the community, protesting that the program had given him a platform to spew out his incredibly damaging philosophy that SkyNews eventually issued an apology. A bit late, of course.

     Right on cue, several right-wing journalists and shock jocks defended the decision of SkyNews to air the interview on the basis of (you guessed it) free speech.

Another example: A few months prior to the protests against Cottrell, there were demands to no-platform British alt-right personality, Milo Yiannopoulos, when he was visiting Australia. Wherever he went, protesters were out in force. As with Blair Cottrell, he had his supporters – right-wing media personalities, conservative politicians and others. He was given lots of exposure in the mainstream media, lots of fawning over by supporters, who simply laughed off his hate speech against feminists, Muslims, indeed anyone who was different from him.

     He called young Australian feminist writer and activist, Clementine Ford, “unfuckable, unattractive, a pig, a fat cunt”. The crowd of his supporters loved it! He mocked Waleed Ali, popular, well-respected media commentator – mocked him for being a Muslim. He calls Muslims rapists and terrorists. Mocks and insults feminists.  Calls aboriginal art “crap”. All this to the sound of approving laughter. His followers can’t get enough of it.

     At the time, many liberal-minded people were saying: “Just ignore him. It’s the attention he wants, the publicity…” and that’s true. It is all about him.

     But to ignore it, to take a passive attitude to all the bile that comes out of the mouths of Yiannopoulos, Cottrell and the like, is to allow their views to be spread uncontested.

     In a similar vein to that of Yiannopoulos and Cottrell, a new Senator in the Australian parliament recently called for the “White Australia Policy” to be reinstated, for immigrants to be deported and for Muslim Australians to be driven out of the country (or worse).

     Thankfully, there was uproar in our Parliament from the then-Prime Minister, from the leader of the opposition, right down to the lowliest of back-benchers. But there were still some saying: “Just ignore him”.

     NO! Protest against such hate-filled speech is imperative. And it is hoped that the media will no-platform that particular Senator in the future, giving him no opportunity to spread his hatred any further.

 Now, where do we stand as radical feminists? Most radical feminists support the call to no-platform misogynists, bigots, racists, white supremacists, neo-nazis, in an effort to protect the human rights of women, racial minorities and all other minority individuals and groups. I know I can’t speak for all radical feminists, but I do know that the majority of us support the silencing of such harmful speech – and see it as a legitimate form of protest.

     In Australia, there’s a group of young feminists called Collective Shout ,who have had some success in their efforts to have a platform denied to entertainers, rappers, speakers who have built their fame and fortune on the expression of hatred and violence toward women and girls.

     As an example, I want to mention the campaign they waged against American rapper Tyler, the Creator, whose music includes references to rape, strangling, mutilating, chopping up women, stuffing their bodies into car boots, trapping them in his basement and raping their corpses.

     In response to Collective Shout’s campaign to have him no-platformed, that is, denied a visa to enter Australia, one group supporting him said that while they were “passionate supporters of women’s rights”, there are three key things at stake, they said: freedom of artistic expression, free speech and humour. Ahh. So, Tyler the Creator should be free to express himself because it’s art. It’s his art (that’s all it is), and it’s also meant to be humourous! Really? Tell that to the women who are violated, mutilated and murdered every day by men!

     The good news is that, after Collective Shout’s strong campaign and letters to the Immigration Department, Tyler the Creator cancelled his proposed tour to Australia!

Look, I wholeheartedly support the right of those young feminist activists to protest in this way. Indeed, I support the right of feminists and others to protest against the granting of opportunities to all who seek to spread vile messages of hatred and violence – toward women, asylum-seekers and other disempowered groups.

     But, to be honest, I do have a hard time supporting the right of aggressive men’s rights activists, transgender and pro-prostitution activists to no-platform feminists, as they try to do ad nauseum.

     Yes, I know. It seems that I’ve been totally inconsistent, and that’s definitely not OK. So, in recent times, I’ve re-examined my understanding of freedom of speech and the right to protest that democracy affords us with a view to becoming more consistent in my view of this.

     Some radical feminists, for the sake of consistency, have come down on the side of banning the call for no-platforming altogether, in the name of free speech. Everyone who is offered a platform on which to express their views, however forcefully, should be allowed to do that, unhindered by protests, they say. That’s the view. In the name of free speech.

     Well, I disagree, in the name of our right to PROTEST. I have come to the conclusion that efforts on the part of any group to no-platform speakers or so-called “entertainers” is a legitimate form of protest – provided it is carried out in a reasonable and non-violent way.

     One of the problems for feminists has been that Men’s Rights activists, transgender activists and pro-prostitution activists have at times resorted to aggressive tactics: intimidation, threats of violence against feminist speakers and their supporters and, also, against the venue itself. This is definitely NOT a legitimate form of protest in a democracy. So, while I do support their right to protest, I do not support the use of aggressive tactics.

     Now, in supporting the right to call for “no-platforming” as a legitimate form of protest, – and this is the important point that I’m making today – the onus, as I see it, is on the platform itself. We, as protesters, do not have it in our power to deny anyone a platform unless, of course, we are the ones providing the platform. But normally, we can only call for a person to be no-platformed. The onus is on the venue – the University, the media outlet against whom the protest is aimed. It is in their hands to allow or disallow the scheduled event. I do realise that this is not a simple decision for them to make and I’ve noticed that Universities, for example, will often make their decisions based on their duty of care to keep students and staff safe. The fact that those who protest against speakers who are feminist sometimes do so aggressively and violently, while feminists protesting against right-wing, woman-hating, minority-hating speakers and entertainers do it rationally and within the bounds of respectability can, and often does, mean that venues bow to the protests of the aggressive ones and ignore the protests of feminists.

     And that brings me to another point (almost as an aside): When our protests are ignored, time and time again, what is our response to be? Do we just slink away like good little women and accept what our patriarchal masters have dictated? No, of course not. We simply regroup and consider what our next move will be. We will never passively accept having our words shut out of the debate – any debate. We give careful consideration to the way forward in terms of peaceful protests that will have maximum impact.

     Now, back to the point that the onus is on the venue itself. When pondering on why so many venues are quick to provide a platform for right-wing speakers (usually white and male) but refuse a platform to strong feminist speakers, some say it’s misogyny plain and simple. And that’s quite possibly true.

     I want to draw your attention to an interesting article that appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Rain and Thunder, that excellent Radical Feminist Journal produced in Massachusetts USA. The article was by Kris Hege. In this article, Kris Hege contrasts the treatment of white supremacist Richard Spencer whose supporters, incidentally, three of them, had recently been charged with shooting at protesters at one of his earlier appearances – she contrasts the treatment of Richard Spencer by the University of  Florida with that meted out to respected feminist Linda Bellos by Cambridge University in the UK.

     After explaining what happened in each case, Kris Hege asks:

         “What makes an institution like University of Florida willing to spend more than $600,000 (for security) and literally risk the lives of their students and community members to uphold the hate-filled speech of someone like Richard Spencer, but people like Linda Bellos who posed no harm, just challenging ideas, are no-platformed?”

Linda Bellos, she explains, is only one in a long line of feminists who

have experienced similar no-platforming. Then Kris Hege goes on to ask:

         “Why is the real and proven danger that comes with hosting events for people like Richard Spencer seen as the necessary cost of being a public institution, but countless feminists are condemned and silenced, frequently for pointing out simple facts about male violence or female experiences?”

Why, indeed? I guess it is hard to rule out the suggestion of misogyny.

Now back to my original question to sum up. Is the call to no-platform a legitimate form of protest in a democracy that believes so strongly in the right to free speech?

     My conclusion, as I have said, is YES, democracy does afford us the right to protest in this way. It does not afford us a right to violent protest, but to respectful and intelligent protest. And it’s up to venues to step up and consider their response in each case, taking into account the need for fairness and the free speech rights not only of men, but also of women.

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