Marginalised voices are the first victims of no-platforming
By Sian Norris
For each controversy about free speech – be it Germaine Greer or Peter Tatchell or Julie Bindel – there's a predictable backlash from no-platform supporters. They claim that those of us with an interest in defending free speech don't understand the power dynamic underpinning society – that we're protecting the privileges of the establishment. After all, how can someone like Tatchell be censored when he's telling us about it in the national press?
The argument is logically inconsistent. Free speech isn't a zero-sum game. Publishing an interview with Tatchell in the Sunday Times doesn't 'cancel out' the attempts to stop him speaking at Canterbury Christ Church. Silencing a speaker in one arena is not neutralised by providing them with a platform elsewhere.
But more importantly, it's a lie that the no-platforming movement is only going after establishment voices. Their main targets are actually marginalised voices.
On Saturday, I’ll be joining Julie Bindel, Sarah Ditum and Maryam Namazie to discuss freedom of speech and no-platforming as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. I hold an odd place on the panel, because I'm the only speaker not to have been banned from a public event. Ditum, Bindel and Namazie have all been disinvited from universities for a variety of reasons, including accusations of transphobia, Islamophobia and so-called whorephobia – accusations which rarely stand up to scrutiny.
Peter Tatchell. Julie Bindel. Sarah Ditum. Maryam Namazie. These are not the voices of the establishment. A gay man, a lesbian working-class woman, a radical feminist, and a secular feminist persecuted by her country's violent regime. These voices are not traditionally heard or listened to – they're voices that have been historically – and are currently – brutally suppressed.
We live in an unequal and patriarchal society where the voices of women, LGBT people and ethnic minorities are routinely silenced or ignored. Seventy-eight per cent of front page bylines are dominated by male writers. Men continue to get more airtime than their female counterparts – particularly if they've committed the cardinal sin of passing their 45th birthday. We're not commonly exposed to women's voices, or those from the LGBT and BME community. The voice of the establishment remains stubbornly white, straight and male.
And while they dominate, marginalised voices are violently silenced. Gay men and women are still bullied, beaten and killed in homophobic attacks. Women of all faiths, sexualities and ethnicities are subjected to brutal gender-based violence. Across the world, there is a concerted and violent effort to try and physically shut these voices up.
That's the appropriate context in which to see no-platforming attempts against feminists and gay rights activists.
There's nothing new about trying to ban radical feminist voices. There's nothing forward-thinking about trying to hush up gay activists. It's not 'sticking it to the man' to join in with one of the most repressive regimes in the world and aggressively heckle a secular Iranian feminist.
It can't be a coincidence that these attempts to ban marginalised voices have come when these groups are beginning to take up more public space – when their battles for equality are beginning to gain more traction. Despite its pretensions to be radical, the no-platform movement's attempts to silence activists, feminists and thinkers are disturbingly reactionary. If you're trying to shut down feminist debate on the sex industry, or silence those criticising patriarchal religious structures, whose interests do you think you're serving, exactly?
Throughout my career as a feminist writer and activist, I have fought to create platforms where women can raise up their voices and speak out. From Reclaim the Night rallies where women have talked bravely and openly about male violence, to the Bristol Women's Literature Festival where writers and thinkers discuss the marginalisation of women's voices, I have advocated for women's representation. To me, creating these platforms is a vital political act in a world where women's voices don't just go unheard, but are actively repressed.
So it makes no sense to me when publicity is withdrawn for my festival because someone disagrees with one of the speakers, or I have to cancel a public appearance because a fellow panellist is banned after unsubstantiated accusations of bigotry. The establishment has been trying to silence voices like mine and Ditum's and Bindel's and Namazie's since year dot. Why are radicals now trying to do it too?
Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist blog sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman, and is a regular book reviewer at Open Democracy. She co-edits the Read Women project. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue, is published by Our Street and her short story, ‘The Boys on the Bus’, is available on the Kindle. She is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein.
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