What are you doing, pro-choice allies?!

I’ve just read a really interesting blog post by Jen McCreight in which she Live-blogged a talk by Abby Johnson called ‘do women have too many rights?’ at the University of Washington, sponsored by Students for Life of America and the Catholic Newman Center. Throughout the talk Johnson promoted nonsense ideas that Jen touches upon in her blog post, however the main theme throughout the post is about how pro-choice protesters were disruptive throughout the talk.

Jen sums her post up by saying:

Look, I consider myself a firebrand. I don’t mince words or hold back. But the people screaming in the back weren’t firebrands…they were obnoxious and accomplished nothing. Did screaming the whole time change any minds? I wish she would have been able to give her dumb talk, then people could have asked her damning questions during the Q&A. But instead it just turned into a giant clusterfuck. I’m actually more angry at the pro-choicers than Abby right now. Blargh.

This is a problem. A big problem.

When I organised the Bath counter SPUC demo recently the aim was to be peaceful and to be an opposing voice. At the end of both our protest and the SPUC one people from SPUC came over and spoke to us and even though what they had to say was disturbing I felt glad that they felt they could come and chat. When one of our protesters rather naughtily stood with the SPUC group with a banner that read ‘right wing nutters against women’ the SPUC people didn’t kick him out or scream at him or try to block his sign. They let him stand there saying what he had to say even though it was rude.

However in blog posts about other counter-SPUC demonstrations I’ve read about and seen photos of pro-choice activists who stood in front of the SPUC demonstrators and tried to cover up their signs.

I think this is an outrageous and disturbing form of attempted censorship. It is just obnoxious and completely gives across the wrong message to everybody observing the separate demonstrations. I am pro-choice, I don’t like the messages that SPUC deliver in their demonstrations, but I will let them deliver those messages. The best way to tackle such nonsense is to let it speak for itself and to then counter it. To show misinformation for what it is.

If the SPUC protesters had used their placards to try and obstruct those of the pro-choice demonstrators I am sure that we would have heard uproar about it. As far as I know nobody from SPUC did that. Isn’t it embarrassing to know that those who present misinformation, who try to block the rights of women to do what they want with their bodies, were in these instances better behaved than those who opposes them?


I think the ‘Right Wing nutters against women’ sign was inaccurate because I do not believe that all of those present at the SPUC demo were right wing, or nutters. Sweeping generalisations are dangerous for either side of a debate. Stick to proven facts and you’ll do fine.

This post is not a direct criticism of the Bristol demo at which the photo I’ve used was taken. This is a criticism of behaviour demonstrated in the photo shown. You can see a very similar photo here. I understand that the people blocking the signs in the photos in the post below and linked to above were a small group calling themselves “anarchists” who joined the main organised protest. I understand the main counter-SPUC protest was held much like the Bath one that I organised, the Bristol group are pictured here.

I also don’t believe that the group who referred to themselves as ‘Anarchists’ represent anarchists as a whole, either.

About Hayley Stevens 423 Articles
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.

17 Comments on What are you doing, pro-choice allies?!

  1. I had the same reservation about the “nutters” sign – but no question, it got the best reaction of all the messages we had. It was us vs them, and it was funny: people wanted to be on our side because we were the side with the best joke. There’s a difference between appealing cheek like that and aggressively trying to crush the opposition; I think the first one wins friends while the latter just wins enemies.

  2. This is an issue that invokes passion on both sides and it is easy to lose one’s cool. It is also easy to try to dehumanize the opposition. Dehumanization is part of our base nature and is often a coping mechanism in dealing with conflict (verbal and physical). It isn’t always easy to rise above our base nature in the heat of the moment, but it is something we should strive to overcome. Rarely does abuse lead to resolution of a conflict.

    Humor can help deflect hostility, as long as it isn’t mean spirited. Humor is also an excellent way to point out the absurdity of someone’s flawed reasoning.

  3. The best response to reprehensible speech is more speech, not blocking their ability to speak. I disagree on the insulting signs, however. Mockery is a valid tool of critique. It should be intelligent and well considered, not simply name calling, but we needn’t be respectful of idiotic claims. Respect people, not ideas.

  4. The person you photo is in Bristol and was with the SPUC protesters across the road from our protest. We’re grouped to the left of the Hippodrome in the background of the photo, just out of shot.

    The people standing in front of and blocking the placards of the SPUC crowd were (or claimed to be) anarchists and had intended right from the start to get in among SPUC and (peacefully) counter their arguments. They initially had a hidden facebook group and some came to our group when it was set up to criticise the fact that we were making our plans public and that SPUC could end up moving their protest to avoid us.

    On the day several of them came across the road to us and asked/encouraged us to go across and get in among the SPUCs too, though I don’t recall a specific “Come and block them” call. The general feeling we had was, I think, similar to that which you (and Jen) describe: What they’re saying is unsavoury, unpleasant and much of it is outright lying, but they have a right to say it – there’s no need to actively block it in such a way.

    It was a step too far, I think, though I would imagine the anarchists would disagree heartily.

  5. Edit – I can’t tell my left from my right. The pro-choice were to the *right* of the photo. And the person in the photo was one of the people who came across to encourage us to move.

  6. I organised the Bristol anti-SPUC demo and we did indeed have *one* person from the anarchist group subtly criticising us for “blowing the cover” off of their anti-SPUC action. I didn’t love the criticism and I didn’t love the way that they chose to engage with the SPUC people, but I just want to correct the impression that may have been created here:

    The anarchists were not “obnoxious” to the SPUC vigil participants. They were by and large respectful and peaceful, and while I’m not keen on the implication that we have the right to block speech we don’t agree with, they didn’t menace or crowd out the SPUC people. They engaged them in debate and conversation, and their action did have logical coherence: to show tht the SPUC voice is an easily-drowned out minority.

    Again, I don’t agree with how they went about things and I was particularly unhappy about the fact that they seemed to resent our way of demonstrating (across the road, peacefully, without direct engagement). But there is no room for false equivalence here – the anarchists were not “as bad as” the SPUC, and certainly didn’t in *any way* make the pro choice message look as objectionable as the anti-choice one.

    At the end of the day it’s not realistic to always agree about either tactics or principles with our political allies. It shouldn’t prevent us from respecting each other and working together when appropriate. We can argue about things and sometimes choose to go our separate ways, but that’s all it is. I think the criticism in this post takes this disagreement beyond what is constructive.

    • I only used a photo from the Bristol demo because it was one of the first I found. There were others I saw too of similar behaviour happening. That’s why I didn’t name the Bristol demo in my blog post. This isn’t a direct criticism of the Bristol demo and I don’t think it is above constructive at all.

  7. I didn’t make a couple of things clear in my first comment, and Marina reminded me: The anarchists over the other side of the road weren’t causing trouble, or being menacing etc. Rather they were just getting in the way/blocking signs. I know at least one anti-choice guy ended up holding a pro-choice sign for a minute while the owner sorted out some of her gear!

    I also mentioned that the photo was Bristol as a stepping off point to detail what I knew about the people who took that line of protest.

    By the bye – Where else did you hear about similar activities taking place, Hayley?

    • It is tricky because of the nature of the events being picketed, but really I think they’re guilty of the same. That probably makes me sound horrible but I completely hate what WBC do. Yet censorship is censorship is censorship.

    • OK, I don’t want to turn into the spokesperson for the anarchists or anything like that, so I’m just going to say this and then I’m done:

      Censorship is the prevention of organised dissemination of information by a some kind of central power. What the anarchists were doing wasn’t even strictly speaking bad manners, let alone anything as dramatic as censorship. Not only are they not in any kind of position to censor the SPUC’s speech (a position that is no symmetrical btw – blasphemy laws are still on the books in this country, so their speech is protected in a way that ours is not), but they didn’t manage to do it anyway, as their signs were small and there were fewer of them than the SPUC people.

      The whole ideological stance of the religious right in the last 3 decades, in the US and now increasingly in the UK, is one of victimhood. The mildest of rebukes sends them wailing to the right wing press about “censorship”. Calling out Nadine Dorries on her lies gets people accused of “censorship”. Private health insurance companies including contraception in their coverage plan is a religious freedom issue all of a sudden. Not only is is tactically unwise to play into the victimhood/censorship frame, it’s a position that is predicated on a complete misappropriation of the (liberal, left wing) ideals of free speech and tolerance.

      Like I said in my first comment here, the problem I have with your post isn’t that you are criticising what the guys did – I am highly critical of them myself. No, my issue here is the application of false equivalences, of a sort of “both sides do it” “as bad as each other” analysis based on notions of politeness rather than a serious engagement with the underlying political dynamics.

      PS Dru mentioned that you’d used her photos of the event without seeking permission – the polite thing to do now would be to change that, no?

    • Photos removed. Fair enough.

      I understand how the religious right act, the privilege they hold, and their claims of marginalisation – I’ve written about it for the Heresy Club numerous times. I also know what censorship is, and I know attempted censorship when I see it. Attempting to cover up other peoples signs is attempting to censor them whether successful or not. Sure, the behaviour of the “anarchists” may no have been obnoxious, but in my opinion, the intent was obnoxious. You cannot justify the attempts to hide SPUC’s signs by bringing up all the wrongs of the religious right. That isn’t justification.

  8. “Censorship is the prevention of organised dissemination of information by a some kind of central power.”
    providing pseudo-definitions doesnt get you out of it.

    the blog title is flawed -just because someone is pro-choice doesnt mean that prima facie I can call them an ‘ally’ for that same cause in any way

  9. Just a side thought and not really wanting to derail but..
    I may be being hard of thinking but is the concept of a “Spokesperson” for an anachist group oxymoronic ?

    It reminds me of the student interviewed on BBC News during the student demos and minor distubences of last year.
    He was wearing an “Anarchist Students Association” T shirt and complaining that he expected the government to pay for his education!
    He was either a “situationist comedian” or not really thinking things through.

    Keep up dating us with your current interests Haley I do find your blogging very interesting and provoking.
    oh and will we be getting a R.I episode soon ?

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