Hold them to account!

Submitted by AWL on 24 February, 2015 - 4:37 Author: Rosalind Robson

Omar Raii’s article about free speech on University campuses (Solidarity 354) was written before a recent public exchange of letters over the issue.

A number of academics and activists like Peter Tatchell signed a letter condemning what they called the “intimidation” of comedian Kate Smurthwaite (she had a gig at Goldsmiths University cancelled) and the attempt last month, to get the Cambridge Union (CU) to withdraw an speaking invitation to Germaine Greer (Greer has long been anti-trans). A letter signed by activists, answered the condemnation, to set the record straight.

Indeed, neither of these incidents were attempts to “no-platform”.

Smurthwaite’s gig was cancelled because no one wanted to hear her jokes. Feminists on campus had debated whether or not they wanted to co-host the show, but not, as had been reported, whether they wanted to no-platform Smurthwaite. Someone had suggested organising an alternative event if people didn’t fancy going to see Smurthwaite.

In the case of Germaine Greer the CU was asked to withdraw the invitation; the CU declined. That decision was accepted and the LGBT+ society and CU Student Union Women’s Campaign organised an alternative event to discuss the history of trans feminism and how feminism can be made more trans-inclusive. They thought it might have been an idea for the CU to celebrate some different kinds of “feminist icons” or give a platform to people who need it more than Germaine Greer. Totally fair enough.

Not inviting, withdrawing invitations in favour of doing something different, organising alternative events, turning up to leaflet (as also happened in Cambridge) is not “no-platforming”. So good people like Tatchell, and those who are rightly concerned about free speech on campuses, shouldn’t get drawn into the hyperbole.

I do have a but here. Let me put it positively.

It should be part of our tactics to debate people like Greer. Her views on trans people are distasteful and frighteningly complacent (e.g. “I don’t believe there is such a thing as transphobia”) but also illogical and easy to expose. By debate I do not mean engaging in “civilised” discussion, but intervening, vigorously challenging, and holding Greer to account.

This wouldn’t be a tactic that everyone would want to, or feel able to, participate in. But direct challenges are effective. I think in part activists have either have lost confidence in such tactics, or do not have much experience of it. We need to learn or relearn from past struggles.

As Pragna Patel — someone who has an exemplary record on taking risks in political activism and “speaking truth to power” — argues elsewhere in this paper, struggles for accountability have been key to changing society for the better.

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