Free Speech Is Bittersweet And That’s The Whole Point

When I started Project Barnum (the now defunct online resource into how to spot psychic trickery) I did so with a petition that urged theatres and performance venues to not host psychic stage shows. At the time there was some controversy with people suggesting that the petition was calling for the censorship of psychics (something Deborah Hyde suggested in an interview at the time) but that wasn’t the case.

With the petition I wanted to show that people were concerned about these sorts of shows but I look back now and can see that putting obstacles in the way of people getting a psychic reading isn’t going to stop them from getting a psychic reading, just as banning books won’t stop people reading those books. The best thing to do is to provide people with the knowledge that’ll help them understand the situation and ideas they encounter, and to meet misleading speech with accurate speech. The petition was a valid form of protest though and it did garner a response from one of the biggest theatre chains in the UK.

I’ve always tried to champion freedom of speech and freedom of expression and I was shocked when people started talking about censorship. I changed my approach with Project Barnum and instead made it something that people could use in their own best interests if they wanted or needed to and as a result several people managed to get their money back after seeing dodgy psychics and mediums. Win!

Why am I writing about this? Well, I wanted to give some insight into how my perspective of free speech has shifted over the years. I am very much of the opinion that if you want free speech then it has to come with no clauses. “I believe in free speech but not for them” just doesn’t cut it but it’s really easy to fall into the trap of justifying the silencing of a particular group or individual because of your personal biases.

In recent years there have been a spate of concerning censorship incidents at UK universities in which non-religious students have been censored because they offended religious students and women have been no-platformed because their opinions are deemed to be offensive and it’s unacceptable. You’ve a right to be offended but you’ve absolutely no right to have your offence catered to. Obviously there are times when a hate crime might be committed and that’s a legal issue, but these particular cases did not class as hate crimes and yet the offended students have their offence treated as though it was a priority. A priority over the freedom of speech and expression of the non-religious students.

Then, more recently, came the horrendous incidents in Paris and the on-going brutal murders of secular bloggers in Bangladesh.

Now, I’ve already taken a bit of a leap with this post. Censorship of psychics is hardly on the same level as the censorship (and murder) of atheists, right? True, but it’s still problematic and the moral of the story is there throughout. You can’t think it’s okay to censor one group of people and not okay for another group to be censored. Such a standpoint lacks consistency.

Anyway, I digress.

The whole reason for writing this post was because of my experiences in the last few weeks on Twitter. I made this following retweet in late July:

and I added the following comment to my Retweet:

At the time of the retweet I didn’t know about the drama in which author Ophelia Benson has been accused of being a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.) The retweet was made as a note of observations of an issue I have seen arising for a while now with friends and acquaintances of mine being added to the Blockbot along with racists, misogynists and homophobes for simply having a dissenting point of view, or for asking questions. My use of the phrase “scummy biology” was a nod to the number of times I’ve seen people called “cis scum” for just sharing an opinion.

Almost immediately I was called out for supporting TERFs and for “finding the suffering of trans people hilarious.” At this point all I had done was point out that the Blockbot is used by some to punish women for holding dissenting p.o.v’s but somehow I was guilty of a bigger crime. Then, a while later, I retweeted a series of tweets from Becca Reily-Cooper in which she discussed the treatment of Ophelia Benson as the accusation of her being a TERF grew into quite an ugly series of online attacks.

I don’t know the technical details of the whole Benson situation but I know enough to say that when asked if a trans-woman was a woman she didn’t offer a yes or no answer immediately and has apparently shared links to content that is considered by some to be “Trans-Exclusionary” in nature. Guilt by association, some might posit and I was about to become guilty of the same crime. After retweeting Becca I received several comments about supporting TERFs, defending the oppression of the “most marginalised LGBT group”, that such opinions were akin to racism, to people telling me that it’s okay for women to be silenced because they’re being offensive to marginalised people.

Earlier this year Peter Thatchell co-signed a letter in the Observer expressing ‘alarm at attempts by some trans activists to ban their feminist critics from speaking at universities and other institutions’. For this he was attacked online and received threats of violence and worse. He wrote of his experience in the IB Times ‘For me, free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights. It is the foundation of a democratic, open society. It should be defended without exception, unless it involves threats, harassment or incitements to violence … I have not endorsed any anti-trans opinions. I simply defended free speech for feminists who I disagree with, which is what genuine freedom of expression is all about. ‘

This is what my objections boil down to, too. For some people, just questioning the status-quo makes you an enemy and that isn’t a healthy approach to discourse. A lot of women I follow online have raised questions about biological definitions of being a woman and being female. Now, I personally don’t think it’s an issue to say that you were born female if  you were born with male genitals or vice versa. I don’t think it helps to be too caught up on technicalities about these subjects at all. I also have differences of opinions with a lot of women I know online and in-real-life about sex workers too (I think that many people accidentally objectify women while fighting against the objectification of women) but I don’t think people deserve to be silenced if they think otherwise.

Pointing out something you disagree with is great and I’d never suggest protest isn’t a valid form of expressing disapproval – but protest shouldn’t be a form of shutting people up. Having emotional reactions to things we do not like is fine because we are humans and it’s what we’re good at but using those emotional reactions as a basis for making decisions doesn’t always work out so well though, especially when those decisions come in the form of 140 characters on social media where you don’t even have to think twice about something before it’s out there for the world to see.

I think that half of the people who are accused of being TERFs or transphobic probably aren’t and it sometimes seems that the accusation of “TERF!” or “TERF Supporter!” is used to silence people who hold dissenting opinions or question what is being said. Paint someone as a TERF and nobody will listen to them and then you do not have to answer their criticisms, questions or their points. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book – in my particular field of research the same can be said of the accusation of being “a closed-minded skeptic!” or “a cynic!”

I understand that for people who have to deal with discrimination because of their gender identity having to deal with numerous criticisms or questions online can be exhausting, upsetting and overwhelming (with Twitter being particularly difficult because it is constant) but I still don’t think this justifies the way in which people are shot down for speaking out. You can disagree with people and what they say about gender, you can find them offensive and you can block them on your account if you want to, but to chase them off of a public platform (or to support those who do) can’t be justified.

If you have to engage with those you disagree with meet speech with speech, educate and debate. If something becomes a hate crime take the appropriate action, but to remove public spaces of any speech that you happen to find offensive or happen to disagree with cannot be justified as anything other than devious. To then accuse those who highlight this as TERFs or transphobic is disingenuous.

note: edits were made post-publishing to the paragraphs about Project Barnum

Published by

Hayley Stevens

Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

One thought on “Free Speech Is Bittersweet And That’s The Whole Point”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *