Redwrappingpaper/Wikimedia

Last week, Varsity reported on an open letter requesting that the group move their talk to another venue. I read their manifesto, and then commented on the Facebook post, ‘Where can I sign the open letter?’, spurring a flood of harassment from the group’s followers. My friends’ defensive witticisms and a host of misogynist absurdities in response could colour the exchange as the kind of faceless internet debate so common on social media. But it represents more than anonymous trolling; more than the virtual clash of the liberal Gen Z and the meninist. It represents the prioritisation of a men’s rights group that questions woman’s right to abortion, the legitimacy of their accounts of sexual abuse, and the value of feminism, over the right of women’s safe existence.Theirs is a particular brand of misogyny only thinly concealed by the guise of a fight for free speech, and soon to be endorsed by the reputation of the University of Cambridge.

I define myself as a feminist as quickly as I define myself as human. I grew up with parents that taught their three children about the importance of the fight for gender equality. My mother gave me my middle name in homage to the Victorian feminist, Josephine Butler. I wrestled openly with the message of my Catholic secondary school, and grew used to the expectant faces that would turn towards me when ‘gay’ or ‘like a girl’ were flippantly used as derogatory terms through sixth form. One of the few times that I got into trouble at school was for putting up pro-choice posters in the loos. We would share stories of everyday sexism at the dinner table. All five of us define ourselves as feminists.

‘Free speech’ is important to our societal values, and indeed to our university, but it seems it is a convenient mutation of this concept which fosters the hate speech of groups like J4MB.

I realise that I have grown up in a kind of feminist idyll: certainly experiencing the misogyny intrinsic to women’s existence, but filtering these experiences through a faith in my rights as a woman that was instilled in me from birth. Questioning this party’s presence on campus seemed obvious to me, but my reaction to the J4MB event was not intended as an attack. I intended to peacefully sign a petition, and inadvertently unearthed a seething mass of misogyny. The group’s followers responded to a kind of call to arms by Men’s Rights Justice UK, and met my original comment with abuse and theories of the responsibility of women for the historical atrocities of civilisation. It would be laughable, if this group weren’t being publicly platformed by our own university.

In their comments, supporters of the group attacked the validity of my education. They reduced my friends and I to ‘ugly beta feminists’, rejected my friend’s experience of prejudice as a woman of colour, declared me emotionally unstable and devoid of the male contact I evidently crave. They ran through a kind of twisted checklist of offensive gendered stereotypes under the pretence of their right to free speech. Every time I checked my phone I would find fresh abuse: people I’d never met mocking my gender, intelligence, and experiences. I began wonder who around me also shared these beliefs about women. Conversations with friends began to feel like tests of allegiance. The University’s platforming of this group felt like the latest in a string of repercussive oversights in a history of colonised syllabuses, harmful investments and bigotry harboured within college walls. Too many cracks in a comparatively liberal and accepting place of education spiralled before me. Varsity’s Facebook followers continued to divide into the camps of likes forming on my comment and those of my harassers.

I talked about it all the time. During one of these discussions, a friend of a friend became confused,  focusing on how such abuse couldn’t have happened pre internet. We pressed that the misogynistic beliefs of J4MB was the crux of the issue, but he wondered whether it could ever be appropriate to deny the expression of a particular school of thought. He painted a slippery slope between banning anti-feminist groups and the historical totalitarianism of the country, where he had grown up.

The misogyny that J4MB represents should not be legitimised as a topic that our freedom of expression enables us to engage with.

This wariness of homogeneous representation is perhaps a fear that was never instilled in me by my privileged British, liberal upbringing. As a product of the echo chamber of a supportive family and a good education perhaps I feel more entitled to segregate what I feel ought and ought not to be acceptable. Of course, the premise of ‘free speech’ is important to our societal values, and indeed to our university, but it seems it is a convenient mutation of this concept which fosters the hate speech of groups like J4MB. It was their freedom of speech which enabled their followers to stifle my request to petition with gendered and personal abuse. Theirs, admittedly like so many people’s, is a freedom of speech which extends to no further than the opinions they hold, and, at this threshold, morphs into a violent attack of opposing voices.


READ MORE

Mountain View

Open letter calls for cancellation of anti-feminist group’s meeting in Sidgwick

The misogyny that J4MB represents should not be legitimised as a topic that our freedom of expression enables us to engage with. The University’s Statement on Freedom of Speech states that events which “pose a genuine risk to the welfare” will not be platformed. Ultimately, the duty of the University lies with its students: controversial hate speech should not be housed here, of all places. J4MB represent more than the ‘imminent threats to [students’] preconceived ideas’ that Elizabeth Hobbs, its Director of Communications suggests. The aggression they have exhibited online represents a very real risk to students’ welfare. In allowing their presence on campus, the University fails to support its female identifying student body. This endorsement of misogyny in exchange for this brand of free speech is a price too steep to pay.

Sponsored links