'Radical change has never leaked out of an echo chamber'Cory Doctorow

Fuck, feminism, and free speech: the holy trinity of 21st-century F-words. Only in the university bubble might mentioning the last of these garner more dirty looks than the first – mix in the middle and you’ve got the perfect storm in a teacup.

One might expect political and feminist discourse at universities to be some of the most radical and revolutionary out there – I certainly did when I began university just over a year ago, bleary-eyed and unaware of the horrors of ‘no-platforming’ and trying to make pasta in a kettle. I believed – and still do – that freedom of speech and expression was not only an ally of my feminism, but absolutely central to it.

Feminism, like any social movement or intellectual idea, benefits from critical inspection. Indeed, to accept something as radical and profound as the feminist movement should be, without a healthy level of discussion and challenge, would be foolish. No sensible argument should ever fear scrutiny – it serves to develop it, refine it, and improve it. Likewise, feminists should not fear sceptics of the movement, and even less so move to silence them. While many feminists argue that giving controversial voices a platform legitimises them, I could hardly disagree more – by censoring an idea or the person that espouses it, we deem it something worthy of hiding: worthy of fear.

Most people will be all too familiar with examples of censorship in the name of feminism, since news columns seem to rejoice in their absurdity. Take the University of Bristol’s FemSoc zine – who uninvited a journalist from their panel because she had been “accused of transphobia”, though could give no source or evidence for this comment when challenged – as a perfect example. More ridiculous still is the University of Manchester, who no-platformed Julie Bindel – a controversial feminist – but invited Milo Yiannopoulos – the anti-feminist right-wing journalist recently banned from Twitter for hate speech – to speak at the same event. Although Yiannopoulos was later also uninvited following complaints of hypocrisy, Bindel’s and his exclusion from an event entitled “Does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?” seems sufficient to answer the question posed.

These incidents are comical at best, but more worryingly indicative of an increasing desire to resort to ideological totalitarianism, and to label any space with a dissenting opinion as “unsafe” for students. Worse still, and ironically so, voices from minority groups often receive the most intense scrutiny of no-platformers: Julie Bindel, a working-class lesbian woman, for an (undeniably extremely offensive) article on transgender people she wrote – and has since apologised for – over a decade ago; Peter Tatchell, a gay man who has been an LGBT activist for over 50 years, for signing a petition supporting the free speech of women like Germaine Greer and Bindel; and Maryam Namazie, an ex-Muslim Iranian woman of colour, for criticising organised religion and its attitude to women.

Arguably more worryingly than censoring critics of the movement, in rejecting ideas and actions that conflict with what can feel like an unachievably ‘perfect’ form of feminism, we close off what could be one of the most powerful and inclusive movements of our time. Not only do we make the movement inaccessible to those without experience of ‘feminist culture’, nor only draw ridicule from the many who see modern-day feminists as far too fragile to make a significant impact, but we risk sealing ourselves off from the very people that the movement should serve to empower. Radical change has never leaked out of an echo chamber.

This problem is epitomised whenever a prominent woman dares embrace the label ‘feminist’; you can be certain that she is unlikely to escape without accusation of her displaying the wrong kind of feminism – as though university students alone were insightful enough to award this accolade. Despite the precision with which modern feminists must choose their words to avoid backlash, they seldom succeed.

Beyoncé, for example, is an empowered black woman that celebrates her race, sexuality, and the label ‘feminist’ – but she also uses her platform to celebrate her husband and her daughter, and according to some this renders her belief in gender inequality meaningless. Emma Watson has used her prominence to gain a position as a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women and fight for the rights of women – but she is also white, privileged, and has announced her support for the #HeForShe campaign, inviting men to the forefront of the feminist movement, so many argue her feminism is too ‘problematic’ to deserve praise.

Far be it from me to instruct you on who should be your feminist idols – I for one certainly revisit Beyoncé’s ballads more often than her essay on gender equality. The problem arises, of course, when criticism becomes something more toxic, when a desire to challenge something becomes a desire to silence it. This could be an idea, a person, a movement, a song – when a group of people become so confident in their own assertion that something is negative, they move to deny others the opportunity to decide from themselves.

TV personality Richard Osman recently tweeted of Trump: “If you call everyone who disagrees with you evil and awful, then when a Trump, who IS awful and evil, turns up, you’ve used all your bullets”. By trying to hide students away from speakers who have done little more than disagree with them, we patronise the students and undermine those with serious objections; by requiring trigger warnings every time we mention a clothing size or price, we demean those with serious mental health problems who genuinely need them; and by fetishising safe spaces, we have warped what was once a radical collective for the marginalised into a safety blanket for all.

In almost every piece on this topic, free speech and feminist politics are painted as mutually exclusive domains – distant realms at the opposite ends of discourse. I challenge that. Revolution will never be everybody’s cup of tea, and palatability is not radical. Feminism is an idea worth fighting for – whether you like it or not

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