Banning Bindel is an insult to Manchester students
Feminist Julie Bindel and journalist Milo Yiannopoulos were due to speak at an upcoming debate organised by the University of Manchester Free Speech and Secular Society, of which I’m a member. The debate was titled ‘From liberation to censorship: does feminism have a free-speech problem?’. But the debate is now not allowed to take place. The University of Manchester Students’ Union (UMSU) decided to ban Bindel and demand a ticketed and closed event for Yiannopoulos. According to UMSU, Bindel was banned because of her ‘views and comments towards trans people, which [UMSU] believes could incite hatred towards and exclusion of our trans students’. Since making its initial decision, UMSU has imposed a full ban on Yiannopoulos as well.
The justification UMSU gave for banning Bindel was ridiculous. Speech rarely, if ever, causes harm in this way. As John Stuart Mill pointed out, if someone tells an angry, hungry crowd that a particular corn merchant is starving people by driving up the price of corn, and that he should therefore be killed, that speaker is inciting violence and thus causing harm. But, by and large, adults are responsible for their own actions. Just because someone tells me to do something, doesn’t mean I have to do it.
Not that such reasoning would perturb Jess Lishak, women’s officer at UMSU: ‘Julie Bindel is a journalist and activist who’s been on a crusade against the trans community, and trans women in particular, for many years… In her writing, she continuously misgenders trans women, either by referring to them as “he” or by placing “she” and “woman” in inverted commas… Bindel is also known to argue that “we” (our society and the NHS) should not be offering or carrying out gender-reassignment surgery. All of these transphobic slurs Bindel continues to spout are extremely dangerous; they’re dangerous for trans people and they’re dangerous for feminist and liberation movements in general.’
Much of Lishak’s ire is directed at an article Bindel wrote in 2004, for which she has since apologised. In the article, Bindel argued that gender is a construct, and that male-to-female transgender people have not experienced the oppressive nature of female gender roles. While you might disagree with Bindel, she was not encouraging people to harm trans people. Besides, one would think that university students could cope with someone with a different opinion without classing it as dangerous, inflammatory or potentially disruptive.
Bindel’s 2004 article is taken to be one of the worst examples of her transphobia. The tone could certainly have been nicer, but anyone who has seen ‘Tory Scum’ on a leaflet or placard will know that people often use colourful language when criticising others’ ideas. If colourful language is the basis for bans and censorship, then a lot of speech on campus must also be under threat.
What’s more, the topic of the debate was feminism and censorship. Trans issues were not part of the discussion. But it seems that the mere presence of someone who, 11 years ago, expressed an unpopular opinion on this issue is enough to ‘incite hatred and exclusion’ towards trans students.
Ultimately, it is deeply patronising to assume people can’t bear criticism of their positions. Would all trans people really rather suppress debate than have the opportunity to challenge Bindel? How exactly does the expression of contrary views in one room on campus make members of the student body feel unsafe? Is the option of simply not attending the event not ‘safe’ enough for those who do not wish to hear certain views?
Even if you disagree with everything Julie Bindel has to say, as several members of the Free Speech and Secular Society do, allowing her to speak allows her views to be challenged publicly. Without this freedom we are robbed of the ability to question not just the views of others, but also our own views. Banning challenging views diminishes us as people, as students and as a society.
Edgar Häner is a student at the University of Manchester and a member of the University of Manchester Free Speech and Secular Society.
The Free Speech and Secular Society has launched a petition to overturn UMSU’s decision. You can read and sign it here.
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