Archive for the ‘Free Speech’ Category

It seems a long time ago now, but last summer there was another angry debate within feminism relating to the topic of trans women within the movement. A conference was booked for Conway Hall in London called Radfem2012, and the event was restricted to “women born women and living as women” and which was to include the notoriously anti-trans radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys. After a furious row, the venue agreed that the conditions breached their own Equality policies and cancelled the booking.

I was reminded of this when reading the most fascinating and profound comment on the Moore/Burchill saga I’ve seen yet, by Rupert Read on the Talking Philosophy blog. Read is the only writer I’ve seen this week (of course I may have missed some) to discuss the theoretical issues between some schools of feminism and trans women. I don’t agree with a lot of it, but that is by the by. What came out of his blog is that there are genuine (though arguable) reasons why some feminists might be reluctant to fully accept trans women, especially when it comes to women-only spaces and events.

I’m not going to get into that theoretical debate – it is not really my fight. But I am interested in one particular difference between the row over Radfem2012 and this week’s events. The former was about a practical, real world issue of access and participation – who was and was not permitted to attend a conference and why? This week has been different. While it brought up all sorts of related issues, such as violence against trans people and social persecution, at heart the debate has been intangible, almost esoteric. It ultimately comes down to one specific question – who chooses and controls the language with which we talk to and about trans people? The argument wasn’t about freedom to occupy women-only spaces. It wasn’t about whether trans women were being allowed to identify as women. It certainly wasn’t about whether they were allowed to identify as feminists. The only real argument was about the assumed right of Moore and Burchill to use words and language that was considered offensive by trans people and their allies.

Moore believed/believes she has the right to choose whichever terms and words she likes to refer to trans people, and to place them in a broader narrative as a stereotype or a punchline. She was told, initially politely and then less so, that her language was considered offensive and oppressive by trans people. Her response to that was to up the ante, to become more offensive and oppressive in her choice of words to make her point.

Burchill picked it up from there and went nuclear.

The impression I get is that Moore and Burchill, by virtue of being cisgendered women and feminists, considered that they have control over the narrative used to talk about trans people. This is where points about privilege become crucial to the debate. Who gets to control the language?

My own belief is that yes, women have the right to discuss, debate and decide who is a woman – is it down to biology, psychology, identity or some combination? Feminists must have the right to discuss and debate the place of trans women within their movement (and of course there is an obvious paradox there, whether the debate includes trans women to begin with.) But I also think trans people have the right to assert what language is acceptable or offensive to describe their experience and existence.

Just as women are perfectly entitled to say they don’t want to be called ladies, girls or bitches, trans people are perfectly entitled to say that they don’t want to be called transsexuals, trannies or dicks in chicks’ clothing. Someone who ignores that and expects to get away with it without challenge or criticism is, I think, abusing their privilege and power.

The upper classes do not get to decide whether the word “pleb” is offensive or not. The rest of us do. White people do not get to decide whether words like “nigger” or “Paki” are offensive or not in any given context.  The first step towards liberty and autonomy for any individual or group is defining and describing our own experience – it is the first and best way of owning our existence.

In just one of the many awful articles printed by establishment journalists this week attempting to defend Moore and Burchill with a false flag of free speech,  Tom Peck concluded by quoting Stephen Fry on the freedom to give offence. ‘I am offended by that’. Well so fucking what?  It is true that “I am offended by that” is not a trump card or a guillotine for a debate. We are all free to cause offence and to accept the consequences, which is that those we wilfully offend might hate us for it and offend us back. What we are not free to do is reply “well, you shouldn’t be offended by that.” That is never our call. The free speech that allows one person to call another tranny, yid or poof is the precise same free speech that allows the offended party to call you a fucking bigot. If you offend thousands of people at once, don’t complain if thousands of people call you a fucking bigot in return.

I wrote the other day about privilege and power. There can be no greater expression of privilege than believing one can act without consequence. It is the privilege of a misogynist in a patriarchy, the privilege of a racist in a racist society, the privilege of the homophobe in a homophobic society and the privilege of the transphobe in a transphobic society. What I have found most revealing, and most depressing about this week’s events, is how many influential journalists are still willing to defend the right to abuse, insult and offend trans people when they would never, ever say similar about overt racism or homophobia, and when it is often the precise same people who complain loudest about misogynistic language when it occurs.

What this tells us I think is that while we have gone a long way in recognizing racism, sexism and homophobia for what they are, and making some notable (though still early) steps towards their elimination, huge swathes of our liberal media establishment remain at best broadly indifferent and at worst actively hostile to the rights of trans people. That is a deeply depressing realisation.

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What is the job of a comedian? To make us laugh, you say?

I disagree.

Laughter is but one skill of their trade. Saying a comedian’s job is to make us laugh is like saying a taxi driver’s job is to turn a steering wheel. No. Like the cabbie, the comic’s job is to take us somewhere. A great comic can make us think afresh, help us to see the world and our lives from a different angle. Comedians are no different in that sense from novelists, painters, film-makers, poets or any other creative artists.

That’s not to say all comedy should deal in matters of political significance or philosophical profundity. The absurdities of our language, bodily functions or a trip to the supermarket are just as valid as Mark Thomas’s systematic 90 minute deconstruction of the machinations of a petrochemical multinational. But whatever their shtick , comedians should be (and usually are) aware that they are taking their audience somewhere, however happy, sad or dark that place may be. I don’t go to see Stewart Lee or Doug Stanhope to be taken to a happy place, and I don’t go to see Michael McIntyre or Patrick Kielty… actually that sentence ends there.

I believe comedians, like all artists, should take some responsibility for where their journey ends. Fare, please, don’t forget the tip.

My timeline this morning was filled with not one but two Twitter furores (Twittores?) about rape jokes. In an LA club, Comedy Central star Daniel Tosh had reportedly replied to a heckle saying rape jokes are never funny by pointing at the heckler and asking “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?” In a subsequent, and it must be said half-hearted apology, Tosh claimed it was out of context, adding in the obligatory 140 characters: “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them. #deadbabies.”

I’d scarcely caught up with that story when I heard the rumblings of a new Twitterstorm, this time with Richard Herring at the eye. Wait a minute… Richard Herring? Richard Herring? The impeccably PC, comedic scourge of discrimination and prejudice has made a rape joke? Really?

Well, to be accurate, Richard Herring had made a not-rape joke. In an interview with the Metro paper, he recalled a put-down he’d once used against an annoyingly loquacious heckler: “You’re the one woman in the world where a man would put Rohypnol in your drink and then leave you in the pub,” he’d said. What Herring meant, as he attempted vainly to explain to his Twitter followers, was that Rohypnol would be a handy way to shut the heckler up. The way it was understood, by at least some of his detractors, was ‘You’re so ugly you couldn’t even get raped.’ To return to our analogy, cabbie Herring intended to take his passengers to the station, but took a wrong turn and dumped them in the canal. I despise the modern trend of the ritual public apology but I’d like to believe, at least in private, Richard is thinking: “whoops.”

One of my favourite things on the internet is a YouTube channel called “If Websites were people” and in particular their delicious skewering of fauxminist magazine Jezebel. One of the best moments shows the Jezebel character in a restaurant. Her date says “I’m starving” and she eyes him suspiciously: “was that a rape joke?” she asks. Despite being genuinely concerned about humour which makes light of rape, or which trivialises or mocks the experience of victims, I’m also concerned about the McCarthyite zeal with which the evil rape joke is hunted down and its author persecuted into repentance and contrition.

I was in a comedy club just last week, and my favourite act by far was young and (I hope) rising pottymouth comedian. In her set, she made a joke about being fistfucked in her sleep by a violent, butch lesbian bully. I won’t reveal the punchline, because I think you should go see her for yourself if you can. Suffice to say I laughed like a howler monkey, and so did the entire room around me. I’d lay long odds that the South Manchester audience was 90% educated, leftish, pro-feminist Guardian readers, but how many got up from their seats in disgust, or booed or hissed or heckled? Precisely none. I doubt any of us stopped to think, hey, was that a rape joke? The answer, unlike Richard Herring’s effort, was an unquestionable yes, but we were too busy laughing to notice.

Context matters, not just in the intention but in the comprehension. You could grade rape jokes in order of acceptability according to who is being raped, who is doing the raping, and who is telling the joke: man; woman; victim; rapist.

One of the clichés of this debate is that the question should not be ‘is it offensive’ but ‘is it funny.’ I don’t think that is enough. From a moral and political view, it is not just whether the joke is funny, but where the humour takes us. The comedian I saw last week didn’t take her audience anywhere they weren’t happy to visit. Richard Herring took his somewhere that neither he nor most of his audience intended to go. Daniel Tosh, on the other hand, appears to have known exactly where he was going: he was using the cultural power of rape to take his audience, and a specified target in particular, into a slightly more fearful, hate-filled, uncomfortable world. For what my opinions are worth, I find that pretty loathsome.

All artists, in whatever medium, should be aware of their own responsibilities, but their primary responsibility is to their own art and their own consciences. It makes no more sense to me to argue that a comedian should never mention rape than it would to argue that a novelist should do the same. Comedy is an appropriate vehicle for any issue, but that doesn’t mean any joke is appropriate. In attempting to witch-hunt rape jokes out of existence, feminists risk stifling a popular medium, on a vitally important topic. I believe, reluctantly, that artists of all stripes need to be free to make the world a darker, nastier place with their writing, their work or their performance, but they should also be prepared to accept the inevitable response. Whether the topic is rape, dead babies or skipping to the supermarket, a joke is never just a joke – it’s a journey.


When I wrote and published this, I hadn’t quite anticipated just how big the Tosh story was going to get. It seems every man, woman and dog has now stated their piece about the case, with many good points along the way. In among the piles of pixels, there were two pieces in particular I saw which stood out for me. Lindy West again proved herself the jewel in Jezebel’s purse with How To Make A Rape Joke   – which manages to be not only insightful but funny (see, it can be done) while poet/rapper El Guante cuts right to the heart of the issue in his blog here.  Go see.



I’ve had a message from the comedian I was praising in the original edit of this article. She’s just got a new day job and has asked me to take her name off this. I’ve left the content in, but edited out her name. Hope no harm has been done and very much hope she doesn’t give up the night job!

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I am not the most dedicated gamer of my generation. I never owned a Pong machine or a Gameboy, a ZX Spectrum or a SNES. I’ve never played Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider or Final Fantasy. My only engagement with an XBox is the occasional attempt to prise my 10 year old son away from Minecraft, an experience roughly akin to dragging a hippie raver out of a K-hole. The closest I’ve come to pixellated sexual violence against women has been blasting a red shell up Princess Peach’s exhaust pipe on MarioKart.

So I don’t have much in the way of informed opinions about misogyny in video games, I’ll leave that to others. Nonetheless I couldn’t help but be sucked in by the debate surrounding Kickstarter Anita Sarkeesian, as good an illustration as we’ll ever need of the vitriol of the new gender wars. An intense storm of hatred was roused by her modest idea to crowd-fund research into sexism in the games industry. The many thousands of hostile comments posted on Sarkeesian’s YouTube video were of course heavily gendered and sexualised, but so too was some of the retaliation – notably Charlie Brooker’s description of the mob as “idiotic pebbledicks” who are terrified of women.

If one of the worst offences committed by sexists and anti-feminists online is to reduce women and their opinions to their genitalia and sexual worth, I’m not sure how the cause is helped by turning the precise same missiles around and hurling them back in the other direction – however deserving of mockery and disgust the targets might be.  Without doubt, the hate-fest directed at Sarkeesian was repellent and indefensible. It was a display of the madness of crowds which would have come as no surprise to Mackay or Le Bon (Gustave, that is, not Simon.) There were a few sane voices raised in defence of the gaming culture, and a few reasonable points made about creative freedom and the demands of the free market. But such comments were few and far between, and lost in a swamp of ugly abuse.

In all the online articles and commentary that appeared, a point recurred that this phenomenon is an inevitable price of freedom. If we grant free expression, we also grant freedom to abuse, insult and offend. It’s a seductive argument, with a lot of merit. Offence is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and there has never been an opinion of value which didn’t cause offence to someone. But just as my right to swing my fist ends where it meets your right to not be punched in the face, so my right to freedom of speech does not extend to the point where it silences others.

Let there be no doubt, the hate campaign waged against Anita Sarkeesian was a concerted attempt to silence her voice, using intimidation and psychological warfare. The misogyny expressed may have been rooted deep in the personalities of her antagonists, but in most cases I doubt it. Instead I suspect it was instrumental, using vocabulary consciously chosen to wound as deeply as possible, and aimed at the (assumed) weak points of a woman and a feminist.

This boot can sometimes be on the other foot. While there is no direct symmetry, we have seen the same principle at play in the concerted attempts of some feminists (mostly, but not entirely historic) to stifle debate about male victims and female perpetrators of domestic violence, with activists, writers and academics being branded misogynists and abusers for even raising the issues. Anyone who dares to raise a sceptical voice in many feminist blog spaces can expect more aggression and abuse than reasoned debate. The urge to silence opponents is probably a human one, and for that reason it is all the more important we are conscious of it in ourselves and wary of it in others.

Those who participate in online hate campaigns are not the champions of freedom of speech, but its worst enemies. If they consider themselves libertarians, they are a disgrace to the label. It is not easy to see the solution. Censorship is never the answer, far too many babies go out with the filthy bathwater. Nor do I want to see our prisons filled with hot-headed flamers and trolls.

All we can do is be wise to the nature of these online flame wars, and be prepared to challenge abusive, insulting, silencing behaviour wherever it emerges; be prepared to confront bullies and mob mentality wherever they arise.

We can do that by questioning what they pack in their politics, not what they pack in their pants.

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