It’s time for feminists and the left to support free speech before it’s too late

Free speech should not be taken for granted; it should be defended vigorously.

Image: Reddit

This piece is a long time coming and long past due. I regret not speaking out earlier, but of course, the reality is that people change their minds about certain issues as they think about them more thoroughly and critically. And for a long time, I really didn’t think much about the issue of free speech.

To be even more honest — a thing I am always working to do — while I never felt entirely comfortable with the efforts of some feminists and leftists to silence or ban those they found offensive or objectionable, I also knew that “free speech” is viewed as a dog whistle for libertarians and “the right” these days. And while I’ve come to realize that pretty much anyone who does not adopt all of the “correct” leftist positions, as dictated by the woke masses, is labelled “alt-right” (whatever that means) or “extreme right” (for maximum hyperbole), I, in the past, did not wish to be lumped in with people I had been informed or had determined were enemies.

Does this all sound ironic to you, now? It sounds ironic to me.

Since I began writing and speaking critically about gender identity ideology and legislation, I have been deemed the enemy by the left. Mainstream media in Canada like the CBC won’t speak to me, only about me, which goes against journalistic standards and is incredibly unethical, as they know. Reporters and journalists in Canada will be tarred by association, and simply speaking to those deemed “bad,” puts their jobs at risk. As a result, their coverage is dictated by activists, bullies, and advocacy groups, both inside and outside their respective institutions. Leftists in Vancouver (and likely across Canada) are made not only to disassociate from me, but to condemn me, lest they be labelled traitors by their oh-so-revolutionary-and-brave comrades. I was, most famously, banned from Twitter — the platform most necessary (practically required, really) and most useful to independent journalists, commentators, media makers, and writers — for having the gall to refer to a male, with a male name, a male face, and a male body, as “him.” I have been labelled a bigot, accused of having “blood on my hands,” called a “fascist,” “far right,” and “despicable” (by Vancouver’s mayor, at that), and much worse. I’ve been accused of hate speech and of hate crimes. The events I speak at are consistently protested. I have been threatened countless times. Friends have mysteriously stopped speaking to me, without a word, leaving me to guess or speculate about why. Considering my openness to and interest in conversations, I believe it’s fair to assume that understanding or debating my position is not the goal, but rather maintaining moral purity, virtue signalling that moral purity, or avoiding conflict or challenges among other friends/friend groups.

Of all these responses, it is really only the loss of friends that hurts, though this always eventually settles into a simple lack of respect for the individuals who’ve opted to disappear rather than face differences in opinion or difficult conversations. The rest, of course, is just incredibly troubling, in terms of the implications for journalism, democracy, law, policy, political debate and ideology, and, of course, free speech.

Surely many feminists like myself, who have chosen to speak out publicly about their concerns with regard to gender identity have experienced similar punishment. We are all aware that what we are saying is not hateful, but is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, our views on biological sex are based in science and treated as basic fact by the vast majority of the population. Our analysis of sexist gender stereotypes is (or should be, in any case) supported by most feminists, liberals, and leftists. Our concerns about male predators having access to spaces wherein women and girls are vulnerable are shared by many across the political spectrum. Most sane people understand why women and men should compete separately in sport competitions. Yet, we have been positioned as persona non grata. We have been blacklisted. We are said to be on par with Hitler. Those who claim an interest in social justice, equality, and protecting the marginalized from abuse stay silent, defend, or even participate in the harassment and violent threats sent our way. Moreover, they are working to silence us — to convince as many as possible that even to hear our perspective will somehow be harmful or traumatic.

Words and ideas are now considered “violence” by those who really should be focusing on stopping actual violence. It’s not as though there is a shortage of literal violence happening on a daily basis in the world today…

Even before taking on the issue of gender identity, I was branded untouchable by many who claim to be part of the left, on account of my feminist analysis of prostitution and opposition to the legalization of buying sex and running brothels. A massive campaign to have me fired from my part-time editing job at rabble.ca, a Canadian progressive online publication, did not succeed in that regard, but did result in the smearing of my name, and ostracization by fellow staff members. In the end, I left on my own accord in protest, after an article I’d written was published on the site, then removed, due to an accusation of “transphobia.” (Apparently, it is “transphobic” to understand that only women menstruate and/or get pregnant.)

It has only ever been other leftists — or those who identify themselves as such, in any case — who have worked to silence me.

In his recent book, Love Your Enemies, Arthur C. Brooks writes critically about the tactics of “coercive leaders,” explaining that, “when the competition of ideas within business or government is shut down, the long term impact can be ruinous.” In politics, the media, and on college campuses, people are refusing to work together. “Instead of having productive policy debates,” Brooks writes, “they start trying to shut down the competition of ideas by attacking the other side as immoral and unworthy of participating in any civilized national discussion.” The goal, he explains, is not to help those who are struggling, “but to destroy the other side.”

Sound familiar? These are the exact tactics being used by the trans activist movement.

These tactics have been incredibly successful. By turning people into untouchables, to the point that even listening to them or engaging with them makes one bad-by-association — vulnerable to ostracization and vilification oneself — the result has been that many refuse to listen to or engage with what the supposedly dangerous people say. In other words, what is said about you is taken at face value, and what you actually say, write, argue, or believe is not investigated. Whether or not your ideas are good or bad is never really assessed, because those who have determined your ideas to be bad have not actually, seriously engaged with your ideas. Indeed, I’ve always felt quite certain that if any of those protesting outside of my events actually came inside and listened, they would find themselves agreeing with much of what I say. Or, at very least, would find themselves incapable of accusing me, with any integrity, of saying anything “hateful” or “bigoted.”

But the problem is that it’s not just trans activists who plug their ears and scream “Nazi!” in order to avoid engaging with those they have decided are their enemies. This is a widespread, commonly defended approach by many leftists and feminists. We (and I say “we” to include myself, as I have been guilty of this behaviour in the past) refuse to read articles, books, and websites connected to those we disagree with, politically (or believe we disagree with, in any case). We refuse to attend talks by those deemed “right wing,” “anti-feminist,” “racist,” “dangerous,” and so on and so forth. We treat engagement with or sharing a platform with political opponents as collusion — “getting in bed with,” to use a more crude framing. The tactics used by trans activists are also tactics broadly being employed by progressives on college campuses — places and people who once fought for free speech, not against it.

In the past, my approach to those deemed “libertarian,” “neoliberal,” “right wing,” “anti-feminist,” “men’s rights activists,” whatever, was to ignore, dismiss, insult, or refuse to engage. But despite the fact that these labels are sometimes deserved or accurate, usually people’s opinions are not nearly so simple. And, beyond that, just because a person holds a view that I or my political allies might disagree with, does not necessarily mean that person is not worth engaging with, treating with respect, or trying to understand. It does not necessarily mean they are bad or harmful or even an enemy. Things are not as simple as that, and if you believe they are, I suspect you are not being honest with yourself about your every opinion (which cannot possibly all be good and righteous) or I suspect you have not bothered to speak with or try to understand those who don’t fall strictly within the very narrow confines of your chosen political circle/ideology.

I don’t say this to be condescending, I say this because this has been my experience. As I’ve begun to speak with, read, listen to, share platforms with, engage with, or befriend those with whom I disagree with on various issues (and perhaps agree with on others), I’ve learned that many of those I would have believed were my enemies — and dismissed as such — were actually quite nice, sincere, interesting, and well-meaning. Many were people I genuinely liked, or at least people I could learn something from. This is the funny thing about engaging with other people as human beings, just like you: you can no longer turn them into one-dimensional caricatures.

As a result of my experiences, and as a result of thinking more carefully about the critical importance of free speech (and the terrifying danger of losing it), I realized it was time for me to stand up and say something. Even if it meant angering some of my supporters, political allies, mentors, and friends.

In the past, I failed to support free speech because I did not wish to be at odds with my political allies, nor did I see the point in defending those I believed were my enemies. In other words, I did to others the very same thing that has been done to me.

I know many are angry with me since I’ve begun publicly supporting of free speech, unequivocally. Those who were vocal all along are angry that I’m only speaking out now, as they believe I am only doing so because it serves me. Some feminists and leftists are angry at me for speaking with people who don’t support all that feminist ideology and activism entail and, indeed, for taking a clear stand in favour of free speech, across the board. And while I would prefer not to be at odds with my sisters, most of all — those who I am allied with and who have supported me, in the face of ongoing attacks, for years — I also have determined this issue is of such desperate importance that I am obligated to say something, and to fight. My hope is that we can have this conversation respectfully and constructively, even if it means disagreeing.

Earlier this month, YouTube demonetized shock jock Steven Crowder, after Vox host Carlos Maza demanded the company remove his channel. YouTube, along with social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, have also, more generally, begun censoring, banning, shadowbanning, or demonetizing those deemed “right wing.” And I suspect this is not only ok with many leftists and feminists, but supported. And that is wrong. While the banning or demonetizing of people like Crowder, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Gavin McInnes might not read as the best defense of my argument, it is very much key. (And I’m willing to bet that if any of you listened to or sat down and had a conversation with any of those men, you would find that, much to your political or social chagrin, you would find yourself agreeing with them on various issues and maybe even liking them.)

It isn’t only provocateurs who are often intentionally offensive who are suffering the consequences of a “liberal” culture that opposes free speech. It’s people who are simply asking the “wrong” questions, publishing the “wrong” information, and speaking the “wrong” truths. And beyond that, the point is that, as Noam Chomsky and countless others have said, if you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like.

This is the hard part about defending free speech: arguing in defense of those you do not wish to defend. But we still have to do it. There is no one in the world I trust to draw a line between speech that is allowed and speech that is not. I don’t believe any person, organization, party, or corporation should have that power.

One reason we need to support free speech, as leftists and as feminists, is because, in a truly democratic society, rigorous, open, public debate is absolutely necessary. If we want to have good ideas and create good policy and legislation, we need to engage in challenging, critical debate. We need to challenge our ideas and the ideas of others. We need to keep asking questions and ensure that our answers are factual, fair, rational, ethical, and evidence-based. Another reason that should appeal specifically to feminists is that we are under attack. Our speech is under attack. And the silencing that is going on is being defended in exactly the same way progressives, liberals, and many feminists defend the silencing of those they don’t like, are offended by, find hateful, or disagree with. We are labelled hateful and offensive, and this is being used in order to justify silencing and censoring us.

In recent months, social media platforms have been actively banning users for political and ideological reasons. Women, in particular, have been suspended — sometimes permanently — from Twitter simply for stating biological facts about males and females. They have been suspended for naming male perpetrators as such. They have been suspended for asking critical questions about transgender ideology. And all this has been led and supported by people who identify as leftists and liberals. This has not been criticized by mainstream, liberal, or leftist media in North America, with the exception of a couple of rogue journalists. Now, if we want to be purely selfish in our analysis of free speech (which I don’t believe we should — I think we should be thinking about this issue on a broader, societal level), it seems obvious to me that we should be able to see how a position that says someone — an activist, a politician, a corporation, the state, a dictator, a group of individuals, a lobby group — should have the power to determine who may speak and about what will backfire.

There is no way that any of us can ensure that, without free speech laws, our speech will be protected. It doesn’t matter how right or ethical we think we are. If the powers that be — whomever they might be — disagree, we’re out of luck.

I made a mistake in not speaking out publicly in support of free speech for all — even those I disagree with, even those I find offensive, even those I find hateful. And I believe feminists and progressives who oppose free speech are making a grave mistake that will hurt many of us in the end, and certainly society as a whole. The arrival of an Orwellian dystopia seems imminent, and we cannot afford to allow political purity, fear of new or disagreeable ideas, or allegiance to our political allies or friends to blind us.

We are in a pivotal moment, and we need to do what is right and say what is true, even if it forces us to question our own ideologies, dogma, and political circles. Even if it puts us at odds with our allies and friends. This is what it means to be brave, to be revolutionary, and to fight for justice. We must fight for everyone — even those we disagree with, even those we don’t like. And, in any case, creating and solidifying division and enemies is not what I (now) believe will create a better world. I think building bridges, making friends, finding common ground, and trying to understand and empathize with those around us is probably a more successful model. This doesn’t mean going along with ideas that are wrong or policies that are harmful, but it does mean stepping outside our bubbles, engaging with ideas that challenge our own, and opening up to the possibility that we can learn from, respect, and even like people who see things differently than we do. It means opening ourselves up to the possibility of changing our minds.

But we will never have the opportunity to do any of this if we don’t support free speech, and if we don’t stand up for people’s right to express their opinions and beliefs — even if we (presume to) disagree.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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