Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Chris Hedges, is scheduled to give the keynote speech at an upcoming conference about resource extraction at Simon Fraser University (SFU). The State of Extraction, set to take place from March 27-29, 2015, aims to bring together Indigenous leadership, academics, artists, public intellectuals, activists, and the general public to address “the new face of resource capitalism in Canada… and the lack of debate about such issues.” Ironically, a “lack of debate” is precisely what some groups want.
After publishing an unforgiving report on the sex industry and the left’s unwillingness to challenge what Hedges calls “the quintessential expression of global capitalism,” the bestselling author received an email from conference organizer, Stephen Collis.
The email, sent on March 11, explained that Hedges’ article “set off a ‘firestorm.” Collis writes that, despite his “own knowledge of this issue [being] highly limited… the views expressed in [the] piece are highly controversial.”
Collis said in emails that he was informed by “groups opposed to abolition and in favour of harm reduction/legalization” that the arguments Hedges highlights in his report are “not supported by most organizers and organizations in the [Downtown Eastside of Vancouver], who have found comments in the article offensive and prejudiced.” He told Hedges, via email, that “We have been inundated with complaints around your appearance at the State of Extraction conference, both from individuals and organizations.”
While Collis may have heard from those who are opposed to the ideas put forth in Hedges’ report, which outlines a feminist critique of the sex industry, he had not yet heard from those groups and individuals who agree with Hedges’ assessment that the fight against prostitution is a “fight against a dehumanizing neoliberalism that begins, but will not end, with the subjugation of impoverished girls and women.”
Collis wrote, in his initial email, that “the stakes of the conference are premised on solidarity with frontline and marginalized (and largely Indigenous) communities facing continuing colonial dispossession — a loss of agency, and a loss of voice,” informing Hedges that, in an effort to “stand with marginalized indigenous communities,” he intended to cancel the journalist’s keynote speech.
To be clear, those who petitioned Hedges’ talk are individuals and groups who lobby to legalize the purchase of sex. Pivot Legal, Collis told me, was one of the primary voices involved in opposing the Hedges’ involvement in the conference. Pivot played a significant role in the Bedford case, advocating for the full decriminalization of prostitution, specifically, the decriminalization of pimps, johns, and brothel owners. What else seems clear is that groups and individuals (there were only about seven or eight emails received in protest, I’m told) who support the legalization of prostitution have a vested interest in silencing dissent and in no-platforming anyone who dares suggest that prostitution constitutes a violation of women’s human rights.
Lee Lakeman, a prominent activist and longtime member of Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter (recently retired), points out that the information Collis received is erroneous. “There is no Indigenous community that has called for the legalization of prostitution,” she says. Lakeman also says she doesn’t know which “frontline workers” he is referring to. “Obviously women working against violence against women [who oppose the sex industry] are frontline workers…”
In fact, there are many local frontline organizations, women’s groups, and activists — including women from the sex trade — who oppose the legalization of prostitution, advocating instead for a model that decriminalizes the prostituted but criminalizes pimps, johns, and brothel owners (a model recently adopted in Canada, commonly referred to as the Nordic model), including Vancouver Rape Relief, Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, The Native Women’s Association of Canada, Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre (WAVAW), Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry (IWASI), Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP), and EVE, just to name a few…
Alice Lee, a member of AWCEP (who published an open letter protesting the decision), says, “While we recognize the important history and ongoing activism in the DTES, the organizer’s claim diminishes the struggles of oppressed and marginalized communities outside of the DTES, including working class communities of colour across the lower mainland.” She points out that the assertions made “dismiss all of the grassroots groups, such as AWCEP and other equality seeking women’s groups who have been fighting the exploitation of all women for decades.” Lee also questions the detractors’ claim to the DTES: “What happens in the DTES affects all of us. For any person, group or institution to lay claim to this activism has no understanding of oppression and has no interest in fighting for true equality.”
Considering the organizers’ limited knowledge of this issue, Lakeman says they “completely overreacted.” Of course, all of those new to this debate are susceptible to the bullying tactics of the legalization lobby. It appears they are fully aware of and take advantage of this naiveté, using language intended to manipulate the well-meaning.
When I spoke to Hedges over the phone yesterday he emphatically denied Collis’ attempts to defend his decision on account of “solidarity” with “marginalized Indigenous communities.”
“The oppressor class always finds people who will betray their own,” he said. “I mean, this is the whole nature of colonialism — to [find people to] carry the water for the oppressor.”
Hedges went on to say, “This is just an example of the utter hypocrisy of the liberal establishment which, on this issue, has abandoned poor women – primarily poor women of colour – to a form of sexual slavery and abuse.”
He calls Collis’ response “an example of how spineless and morally bankrupted the liberal establishment is, particularly on this issue as well as on many others. Every time it’s uncomfortable to stand up for something they run for the exit door. Yet they position themselves as moral or good people.”
Lakeman agrees that liberals too-often refuse to take a stand in difficult times, referencing a quote from Bernadette Devlin, who once said, “in the absence of a fence to sit on , the weakly hearted liberals will go about the business of building one.”
Lee feels a decision to cancel Hedges’ presentation would reveal SFU as “an institution that accepts complicity with the systems of imperialism and colonialism that prop up the exploitation of women.”
Needless to say, no one is prepared to accept a cancellation.
“This [would constitute], let’s face it, censorship,” Hedges says. “And it’s particularly pernicious that it’s done in the name of liberalism.”
Lakeman wants “a resolution that supports free speech and that supports more connection between those resisting the extraction industries – particularly the Indigenous organizers.” And it seems, now, that this is what we may get.
Since the initial email from Collis, informing Hedges about the organizers’ intent to cancel his talk, they’ve backtracked. Collis resigned from his position on the organizing committee this morning and it appears as though Hedges may, now, be back on as keynote.* In addition, it’s been suggested an extra panel be added to discuss the connection between resource extraction and prostitution.**
Hedges is happy that Collis and the other organizers decided revoke the decision to ban him from the conference and censor his voice. “Their decision to add a panel to discuss this issue is a good one,” he says. “But will they bring onto that panel the pimps, traffickers, johns, massage parlour and brothel owners who manage and profit from this industry? Or will they allow those who make money from this abuse and exploitation to hide behind a handful of women who serve as their mask?”
“Any real debate should be carried out with the exploiters, not the exploited,” he says.
Hedges has requested that, as a white male and as an American, there be women — particularly women of colour – who join the panel as well, to speak for themselves.
In this case, efforts to silence those who push back against the commodification, exploitation, and abuse of women’s and girls’ bodies have failed, but this is not the first time the sex work lobby has tried to censor feminist opposition to the sex industry and it won’t be the last. Perhaps it’s time, at long last, for liberals and the left to get off the fence when it come to women’s human rights.
Silence, in the face of backlash, may be comfortable, but it isn’t right.
*It appears that, since this morning, the decision Collis made to resign from the organizing committee may have been reversed, as he’s still listed among organizers in the most-recent conference email update.
**Update, 03/16/2015: The organizing committee has withdrawn their offer to add an extra panel on resource extraction and prostitution.