I write about free speech. And I’m tired of writing about free speech. I’m tired of needing to write about free speech.
I’m tired of needing to defend women’s freedom to discuss our long-contested bodies without being plucked and waxed into acceptable, tidy language, bland and inoffensive as a Playboy Bunny’s perky smile. I’m tired of needing to defend a blogger or cartoonist’s freedom to poke fun at other people’s idols, when it’s men with guns in Paris, not roués with ink, who make me feel ‘unsafe’. I’m tired of the death of irony; I’m tired of the death of good faith. But most of all, I'm tired of student unions.
This week, the story is the University of Manchester's student union (next week, it’ll be another). As the Daily Beast explains in full, Manchester’s Free Speech and Secularism society had invited Julie Bindel and Milo Yiannopoulos to debate 'From liberation to censorship: Does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?' on 15 October. On Tuesday, Bindel (who also writes for The Spectator) was banned from speaking by the student union.
The irony writes itself, but it’s hardly a coincidence: universally, students are provocateurs, and one suspects the Free Speech society was – rightly – out to make a point. Bindel has been banned from half the college campuses in the land, on the basis of a column written eleven years ago, in which she argued that transexual women should not be entitled to counsel rape survivors. Agree with Bindel or not, she’s been through the wringer on this one. One suspects that whoever invited her had a good eye for media coverage, and a predetermined sense of the answer to his or her debating question. In the PR employment market, a Daily Mail headline is worth a dozen double-firsts. Good on ‘em.
Modern feminism has a bad habit of eating itself. Bindel, a veteran campaigner of old feminist battles, was banned, Yiannopolous, a professional (and highly accomplished) anti-feminist provocateur, initially was not. It’s thanks to Bindel’s work as a researcher and campaigner that marital rape was eventually criminalised; Yiannopoulous’ idea of a good night out is sending a slew of tweets about women’s inferior intelligence. Eventually Manchester Student Union extended their ban to Yiannopoulos, claiming his views had only just been 'brought to their attention': in reality, this simply means that Julie Bindel has a more eager set of stalkers jumping to email every university to which she’s invited.
It’s indicative, too, of student unions’ power-grabbing style (when in doubt, ban more people). SUs reserve the right to veto speakers at any of the subsidiary societies they accredit. Increasingly, however, they also protest at events outside their remit, including speakers invited into the classroom by tenured academics (as when Israeli Deputy Ambassador Alon Roth-Snir was forced to abandon a talk in the politics department at Essex University). Friends in academia censor themselves in lectures when leaders of student unions are present. Most closed debates in universities are shut down, in the end, on ‘safety grounds’.
The usual defence of such policing is that ‘hate-filled’ speakers create unsafe environments for vulnerable students. It’s a line that was repeated at the Conservative Party Conference by visiting speaker Megan Dunn, President of NUS, when challenged about no-platform policies at a Bright Blue event on universities (full disclosure: I am an Associate Fellow of Bright Blue, but had no connection with the event). 'Ethnic minority students don’t need to hear racism on their campus to know that racism exists and that they need to combat it. Women don’t hear misogyny on their campus to know how to fight it'.
Here’s the problem, Megan. You do need to hear an idea to know how to fight it. My own visit to the conference was to speak in defence of abortion rights, something on which I suspect many NUSers would agree with me (and many Spectator colleagues don’t). In fact, last year, NUS types shut down a debate at Oxford: a pro-life group had invited two men to discuss abortion, which one woman said 'makes me feel threatened in my own university'. But when I speak in defence of abortion, I channel years of student debating with its opponents. As an undergrad in America, I joined a right-leaning debating society and got straight into locking horns with Tea Party types, most of them men. And no, it wasn’t comfortable. We argued in dorm rooms, abandoned classrooms, even locked rooftops. But I learned, as on so many issues, that opposition can’t be wished-away as ‘misogyny’; that even if you doubt your opponents’ motives, they have intellectual structures, principles, a vocabulary that has to be absorbed in order to be confronted. As a woman, I don’t need cotton wool in my ears to keep me safe. In the outside world, no one will.
Let’s talk honestly about the pro-life group who invited Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley to tell women how to think about abortion; let’s talk honestly about the Milo Yiannopouloses of the world. They thrive on controversy, swell their ranks with outrage. Milo has built a successful business model as a feminist-wind up merchant, touring America as a leader of the Gamer Gate movement. They have one set of echo-chambers; the world of the NUS has another. When we ban provocateurs, we only amplify their voices in their own constituency. But when we turn on those who, worst of all, only agree with us half-way, we poison the debates that have half a chance of being constructive. Ban Milo Yiannopoulos, and he’ll rise up louder on Twitter than you can possibly imagine. Ban Julie Bindel, and you strike down debate where it really matters.