Stay Home, Knit, Cook, Protect Free Speech…

As a friend of mine commented yesterday during a zoom chat, it’s like the ‘fifties in here. As we spoke I was knitting my latest project, a purple jumper, and after the call I was about to leap into the kitchen and begin preparing a pan of curry for the freezer and a pizza for dinner. Not that I’m generally a domestic goddess, you understand (though I do too much cleaning for my liking, something about which I frequently moan) but at the moment what else is there to do? Once you’ve had a zoom chat and been for a walk there’s nowhere else to go but the kitchen or the internet, and the internet is, let’s face it, a hazardous place. It’s where most fires start.

Twitter has now suspended Donald Trump’s account on the basis that he is likely to use it to incite rebellion. This seems to me a reasonable act – some would say it’s four years too late – but others complain about giant companies censoring free speech. This is something we have yet to get to grips with in our society; the borders of free speech. I’ve blogged about this before but it’s particularly relevant at the moment, so let’s have another go and let’s begin with Voltaire. Voltaire famously said that – actually no, he didn’t, a woman called Evelyn Beatrice Hall said as a summary of Voltaire’s approach, ‘I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.’ It’s easy to see how this became misattributed to Voltaire but could also be yet another example of women being written out of history as Mo Mowlem has been. But I digress.

We need to be able to disagree. If I am offended by what you say, that does not give me the right to censor or ‘no platform’ you on that basis alone. Rowan Atkinson has, not for the first time, spoken out against so-called ‘cancel culture’ where people are ‘no-platformed’ for expressing views others find offensive. The most obvious example of late is the furore over JK Rowling’s remarks on transgender women. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

There is a serious point here and that is to draw the distinction between hate speech and opinions we strongly disagree with or find offensive. There is some overlap between these categories of course, but we have laws against inciting hatred and prejudice; we also have laws against inciting riots. I’m not sure how the law stands in the US but on that basis I agree with Twitter’s suspension of Trump’s account. It’s clear that we should not give a platform to fascists or those who are likely to foment hatred for any group in society, but it’s not always clear where to draw the line.

J K Rowling last year made some comments on the transgender debate. I’m not going to repeat them – you can find them quoted here and decide for yourself – but in my view they do not constitute hate speech. She is questioning a particular narrative and bemoaning the effects of that narrative on ‘cis’ women and the fact that we now have to redefine ourselves. Some people found this offensive. They are entitled to do so, but I don’t consider her remarks to be hate speech. She did not say that trans women should be harmed in any way or prejudiced against; she was not calling for their elimination or marginalisation. She was commenting on the effect of a particular narrative on ‘cis’ women – here is a piece explaining her reasons.

Here’s the thing. I don’t consider her comments a particularly helpful contribution to the debate. I would not have expressed myself in that way. But even so I defend her right to say it. The problem is that debate is now so polarised that if you’re not wholeheartedly on one side; if you express doubts about a particular narrative, you are held by default to be on the opposing side. This is not helpful. It does not help us to arrive at an understanding of the issues and results in even more prejudice since those who ask questions are automatically deemed transphobic and cast into the outer darkness.

Those on the libertarian right are fond of invoking free speech to defend racists and xenophobes. There is a distinction between free speech and hate speech; between words which merely offend and those which harm, and it’s important that we find it. I have turned off the TV a thousand times because of transgender stories which I find upsetting, but never would I seek to have those stories censored; it’s just that right now I feel part of a cohort of straight partners whose voices are not being heard.

While we’re on the subject of Harry Potter there’s an interesting discussion here. My answer to the question posed on radio 4 by a trans person, ‘Can I still read Harry Potter?’ is that if reading the novels upsets you by association then feel free not to read them. But do not seek to censor other people’s reading.

I look forward to your comments on this difficult topic and if anyone’s struggling with being the straight partner of a gay or trans person, here’s a support group which may help.

Kirk out