I was watching Politics Live yesterday and saw Rosie Duffield say the following about twitter:
It was also unsurprising to see her trending on twitter shortly afterwards. Anything related to transgender issues does tend to do that. This was the specific issue in question that caused the subsequent pile on for daring to like a tweet that led to her leaving the platform for a year.
I broadly agreed with her position. It should be possible for two sides of a debate to air their respective views without people piling on and seeking cancellation so that only one side of the argument ever gets heard. That strikes me as a particular problem. Whilst we do all recognise that there are some limits to free speech, we have historically and broadly happily, always drawn those lines at outright lies (slander and libel) and incitement to violence (as opposed to claims that words are literal violence and should therefore be policed). We have typically not stifled debate nor limited the expression of opinions simply because some find the view offensive and unpalatable.
It is entirely unsurprising that this issue is coming up more frequently than before as a particular political agenda on trans rights is advanced. This is largely driven on by Stonewall – the self-appointed gatekeepers of right-think on LGBT+ issues. Even if you are an L G B or T (or any of the other letters), but happen to disagree with the particular agenda driven on by Stonewall, you are deemed agin all LGBT+ people, even if you happen to be one yourself and merely disagree with their approach to the matter.
For years, as gay rights became the touchstone of progressive politics, most were happy to hold Stonewall’s line. But as the Stonewall line on transgender issues appears to many women – including former Stonewall supporting lesbian women – that their rights are being superseded by the newest group whose rights must be privileged, even above those of L G and B people, some have started to raise concerns. They are now finding what all who ever questioned the omniscient wisdom of Stonewall have found – get on board or get run over! Only, now they aren’t dealing with a tiny minority of dissenting (and a handful of more establishment) voices, they are now dealing with issues directly affecting around 50% of the population, many of whom are not fully on board. Progressive voices, arch-liberals and LGBT+ people have all found themselves in the firing line. Rosie Duffield is but one such example in a growing list.
So, I am extremely sympathetic to the position that the Labour MP finds herself in. The desire to cancel her, being driven off social media and an unwillingness to even let her speak to the arguments. As she rightly lamented, ‘you’re not even allowed an opinion that some people disagree with… it’s a debate and a discussion, I don’t think we should have one bit of an argument ended up as “the right one” and everyone else should be cancelled.’
But sympathetic as I am to her plight, it does bear remembering that she – among many, many others – have contributed to a situation where this is a reasonable way to conduct any argument. One side merely has to label the other as ‘hateful’ in some way, or damaging, or merely offensive sometimes, for it to receive similar treatment. Duffield herself referenced the racist abuse Diane Abbott has received online. It is, indeed, disgusting. But it is interesting that few, including Duffield, would have any truck with the side of the argument that she (and I) detest. New Labour had no problem whatsoever outlawing the various words and opinions that many of us now (rightly) consider racist.
Whilst I am, on one level, glad that such things are deemed entirely unacceptable, we are on very shaky ground insisting that both sides of the transgender debate ought to be heard, nobody should be cancelled and it is all part of a legitimate discussion when we have simultaneously happily outlawed certain views and opinions, and called for people to be cancelled, when it comes to views deemed unacceptable on race. The same can be said of any of the ‘hate speech’ laws that have been passed and the approach many take to any who are not perfectly in line with cultural orthodoxy. In essence, if we think that certain arguments when it comes to questions of race, religion and sexuality are beyond the pale and ought not to be uttered – and it appears the majority of parliament who passed such laws seem to think so – we have rather sold the principle and cannot suddenly turn round and call something ‘acceptable debate’ simply because it is a position we happen to hold ourselves. Either there is a consistent line governing all speech – until very recently this was lies and incitement to physical acts of violence – or there is not and those who pushed such laws through, and supported them when it suited them elsewhere, now have to suffer the ignominy of being hoist by their own speech inhibiting petard.
Much as I deplore racist views and wish nobody held them, and nobody should be bullied because they are of a different race, religion or sexuality to others, I simply do not think banning words and opinions works. Worse, as with all these cases with unintended consequences, not only do the specific laws we pass have some unhelpful and odious effect – even if the principle behind them was a laudable one – as we are seeing now, they inevitably end up with some reach into areas we never foresaw and we have no case against people outlawing our opinion because we have already done it to others we don’t like. So, much as I sympathise with the position that Rosie Duffield has found herself in, she is in it (at least partly) because of decisions her party took 20 years ago to begin doing to others what is now being done to her.
The moral of the story – as has been said multiple times on this blog – is this: the only guarantee we have that we will be permitted to say what we want without fear of cancellation and other reprisals is that we defend the right of others to say what we don’t like. We don’t have to agree with Rosie Duffield, we don’t have to like her opinion or argument to see the point. Otherwise, just as those who were called progressive years ago – like Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, JK Rowling and others – have found that they are now the apparently regressive ones getting cancelled, those who call themselves progressive today will in years to come find that those standing on their shoulders turn out to be wearing the same sort of boots that are stamping on their faces.
Defending the right of people to say what we do not like is not the same as endorsing what they say. Defending free speech does not mean only doing so when it happens to mean allowing people to say the things I agree with, or only defending it when someone who has articulated my particular view is attacked. We cannot tolerate what we can’t hear. We cannot disagree with what is never uttered. We cannot discuss what cannot be said. The sooner those who helped bring in such a culture start to feel the baleful effects of what they have instigated, the sooner we might get to undoing the damage and recovering a real and legitimate case for allowing our arguments to be heard after all.