Sunday, 11 October 2015

No-platforming; "democratic debate" or Weaponised Empty Rhetoric

A lot of people seem to be expressing sympathy with Julie Bindel because she was “banned” from speaking at a university students union in Manchester. In fact she was not “banned” she was no-platformed, which is different; the media likes to use words like “ban” and “censorship” because they are more dramatic and because the media, by-and-large, doesn’t like policies like no-platforming which empower those who are comparably voiceless.

Some people seem to be thinking quite wrong-headedly about this. I have seen one or two falling for the Weaponised Empty Rhetoric (WER) generated by this situation. As I have said above, the first misconception some people seem to have is that this represents “censorship”. No-platforming is a decision by a grassroots democratic organisation that it does not want to allow its facilities used by those who spread discriminatory views about minority groups to use their facilities to spread these views. It actually represents an expression of solidarity. This is another reason the media doesn’t like it, the media, largely owned by those who dominate society by divide-and-rule, always tries to discourage solidarity, which is a means by which the powerless empower themselves and each other.

Censorship is different. Censorship is when, for example BBC News failed to report details of accusations about David Cameron’s dealings with a dead pig. Censorship is when a media organisation, a group of media organisations or a government prevents certain opinions or information from being expressed. Censorship is about the exercise of top-down power, not collective will. This is clearly not the case for Julie Bindel; she regularly writes a column in a national newspaper and in plenty of other places. She is quite obviously not being silenced or censored. What is happening is that a democratic organisation is expressing the will of its members that they believe the kind of opinions or disinformation expressed by her are harmful to a group of its members, and they are not going to throw that group of members under a bus by allowing her to speak.

The fact that Julie Bindel managed to get mainstream media coverage for being “banned” (when it was just “no-platformed”) as Sara Ahmed argued, shows the functioning of power. She is not being silenced, she is getting plenty of publicity from this. Ultimately, as a journalist in a mainstream newspaper, she has considerably wider influence than this student union.

Another misconception about trans people is that, these days trans people have had to go through a lot and are tough enough to deal with the crap provided by these types of speakers. This is a classic example of looking at something from one's own point of view and then applying that to everyone else. This is a mistake. The reality is that this does not account for different people from different backgrounds in different situations. A common falacy which needs to be dispelled, and  ironically one that many have accused Julie of.

My argument, which I have made before, and which no-one has been able to counter, or even tried to argue against, is about why universities and FE colleges are still places which need to be protected for trans people. It obviously needs reiterating and goes as follows;

Schools are still largely unaccepting, unwelcoming and dangerous places for trans children and young people. Some are getting better but they are still largely places where trans children and young people feel excluded, bullied and abused. The situation is quite patchy across the country and kids in different situations, locations and schools are likely to have widely varying experiences of being or coming out as trans.

In fact there are three factors which affect the possibility of coming out as trans if you are under 18;

Local community

The problem for trans kids is that you pretty much need all three (two out of three isn't going to work) of these to be accepting before you can come out and not feel constantly frightened, not be constantly under threat of violence and not be exclusion bullied or worse. Even if only one of these three elements is unaccepting or intolerant, you are pretty much going to find that being yourself is impossible. Quietly keeping your head down and waiting to leave is what many do, until they get to uni or do a course in an FE college.

This means that further and higher education institutions are probably the places where most young trans people come out first. This is where those tiny, cautions, fearful steps out are taken by many, this is probably the main place of coming out for the largest number of young trans people so this environment is one which needs to be protected from; 

  • TERFs, 
  • right-wing libertarians, 
  • well-meaning but mistaken middle-class white men who believe in ‘free speech’  
  • religious trans haters.
University is always held up by the trans haters as an environment where 'free speech' should allow 'free and open discussion' about 'any issue'. The problem is that the trans haters don't engage in 'free speech', they engage in spreading misinformation, disinformation, lies and abuse about trans people. We need to keep the disease of mendaciousness, abuse and deliberate attempts to interfere in the lives of young trans people out of these places. We need to remember that universities have a responsibility to those working for them and studying in them. They also have a responsibility to promote genuine intellectual openness and debate. The output of TERFdom simply doesn't measure up to this standard. TERFs cannot engage in any kind of discussion or debate without manufacturing 'facts', engaging in personal abuse, distorting information and making unfounded assumptions.

TERF output is, as I have characterised it, nothing more than Weaponised Empty Rhetoric. WER does not constitute a logical argument, indeed it is de facto the absence of reasoned argument since it is incoherent, works by selectivity, omission and thrives on spreading disinformation to those who are uninitiated in trans issues. A good example of this is how TERFs embrace two opposing ideologies at the same time, both essentialism and social constructivism, depending on which is convenient. Currently their argument is that, since gender is socially constructed then therefore being trans must be a "choice". 

Toytown arguments like the above are illustrative of the level of debate TERFs wish to bring to universities. They incoherently bandy about conflicting WER simply to try and discredit trans people, hopping from one argument to another successively as each one is discredited. One characteristic of engaging with TERF argumentation is that they cannot sustain an argument in the face of even minimally clued-up opposition. It is like arguing with UKip; unpleasant, unenlightening and pointless.

The idea that including TERF discourse in university is worth doing in the name of 'open, democratic debate' is, literally, not credible. Given the level of argumentation presented in über-TERF Sheila Jeffreys' latest flop "Gender Hurts" there is nothing to be gained from including TERF discourse in universities. Add to this the risks inherent in potentially threatening the safety and prospects of young trans people coming out and/or exploring new gender identities in the first tolerant environment they have encountered, then no-platforming should remain in place. It is to the credit of student unions that there are enough students who want to show solidarity with their trans fellow students to keep this provision in place in the face of those with huge amounts of power and influence exerting a great deal of pressure.

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