By Ellis Holden – Contributor
On the 4th May, the University of York Free Speech Society held an event titled: ‘Feminism and Free Speech.’ This had been much anticipated by many but there were others who took strong objection to the speaker in question being invited. That person was Julie Bindel, a renowned Radical Feminist who holds similar views to that of J.K Rowling on Transgender individuals. Furthermore, Bindel frequently talks about the criminalisation of sex work and is an advocate of the ‘Nordic model’ which criminalises the consumers of prostitution rather than the prostitutes themselves. These two main issues sparked calls for the cancellation of the event back on its original date of March 16th. However, the President of the society did not relent to the pressure and moved the date forward so security could be arranged, allowing the event to take place. This reignited calls for a protest, spearheaded by the Feminist society and LGBTQ YUSU with support from the Labour Society (UYLC), York Student Solidarity Network (YSSN) and Amnesty International society.
From my understanding, The feminist society mainly operates on an intersectional feminist philosophy. This means incorporating every Liberation category (that being LGBTQ+, BAME, Women and Non-Binary etc) into one single theory which demonstrates that different people have different experiences of discrimination. This differs from Julie Bindel’s Radical feminist philosophy as Radical feminism centres only on women and girls. This leads to combat with those who identify as trans because Radical Feminists are also proponents of the view ‘Trans Women are Women’.
This was all explained to me when I attended Fem Soc’s ‘Bindel-Gate’ event on the 28th April to comprehend exactly what people were so upset about. This was explained in two sections. One in which it was demonstrated that Bindel had intolerant views towards trans people and the other regarding her views on sex work. This event, from my point of view, was an impassioned hate session against everything Bindel seemed to represent. Her opponents gave sentences and statements to which radical feminists agreed with in regard to prostitution. However, this was a passive opposition, meaning they had no person to defend those statements on the projector, This is not a good platform for an audience to witness opposing views as it only offers a very narrow tunnel for critical thinking. I had no problem with the reasoning for their anger, but the solution of the Feminist society and others was something that I could simply not agree with. This was to shut down Julie Bindel because ‘hate speech is not free speech’ or ‘a platform for speech is not the same as free speech.’ In my view, the term ‘hate speech’ is one used by left-wing politicians to introduce authoritarian measures, similar to the way in which terrorism is exploited by right-wing politicians. Both have a basis on one emotion- fear. Fear of something different from one’s own world view. They both survive on fear of either differing views or the cultural background of the opinion holder. When the day came, there was a gathering of around 50 students which grew as the day progressed. It took place outside the Law and management building in Langwith at around 14:00. There was a hostile air on both sides as the protestors had been told radical feminists frequently doxed (the action of revealing someone’s address/location) protestors. This put those who attended the event in question on edge. When Julie arrived, she was greeted by all the protestors going silent and turning their backs on her. This confused me, why would they not go over to have a conversation with her? Considering they disagree so much. I texted a friend who replied: “I’m ignoring her” which was what I assumed the whole group was doing. Aside from one person who held a cardboard sign up behind every picture or video she took.
The substance of what occurred during the event showed how bombastic and overblown things had become. Julie opened by saying that she had been called many outlandish names and faced claims that were absolutely unjustified, such as wanting the ‘genocide of all sex workers.’ She then explained that her work centred around helping women and girls escape male violence. Julie viewed prostitution as a very dangerous path which put young women at risk of male violence. Outlawing it would mean trying to help women have an avenue to wealth besides one of the most drastic options one could possibly take. This line of reasoning was not inhumane whatsoever. If people outside the room took the opportunity to come and listen to what Julie had to say, they would have understood her position was not from a malicious point of view.
Why did they refuse to come in? Some of my friends who were at the protest prior to the event were curious as to what was going to be said and asked me to report back. But why didn’t they just come in and buy a ticket to listen to Julie Bindel first- hand? This was because of an absolute aversion to engaging in radical feminist discourse and because they were determined for her not to have any platform for her speech. I take issue with their idea of ‘a platform for speech is not the same as free speech’ as this line of reasoning rests on an authority over what counts as a platform for speech. In this instance, this authority was the feminist society who determined that Julie Bindel being invited to a Russell Group University was too much of an opportunity to insight mass insurrection amongst the populous against trans people or sex workers, or at the very least make these groups feel unsafe. My view on this matter is that determining what counts as a ‘platform for speech’ is a matter that should not be trifled with, as every opportunity to speak to anyone is a platform for speech. Just because a person disagrees with someone’s moral compass doesn’t mean they should have their right to free speech taken away. To do so is an extension of authoritarianism, something I expect these people would disagree with, given the nature of the Kill the bill protests.
After the event, we all entered a separate room to mingle for 20 minutes. I had an opportunity to ask her first-hand about accusations of her doxing people, to which she explained that it was just her taking pictures of people at various protests and not revealing their addresses. After the event, we went out to see what the protestors were doing, which was sitting under a large gazebo in front of the law and management building. They mainly spent their time reciting poetry and people’s experiences of discrimination. They spotted members of the society dotted around their gathering to which Loz, the Feminist Society President, said: “I think its funny that members of the free speech society were all dotted around and have now all left” to which the remaining people, including myself, put their hands up with one girl saying: “we’re still here!” They treated us at worst with childish insults, such as one placard saying: ‘free speech members couldn’t find the clit.’
In conclusion, its fair to say I was able to experience both sides of this dispute. On the whole, I disagree with Julie Bindel’s views on criminalising sex work. As a libertarian, my belief is one should have the right to make money in any way providing that it doesn’t have the potential to harm people. As long as avenues are there to help those who are only in the sex work industry for money, then it should be free to exist. On the matter of trans people and in particular gender-neutral toilets and sports; if a property owner wishes to build these kinds of bathrooms on their property, then they should be allowed to do so. It is also the decision of the competition bodies such as the Olympics as to whether they allow trans women to compete in women’s sports. That is their decision, it is not mine or anyone else’s to take. But what is mine is to uphold the matter of free speech. Everyone should have the right to speak in any place they wish. I support the Feminist society’s right to protest, it is a freedom that should be upheld. But they must support Julie Bindel’s right to speak. They do not have the ruling over who is given the right to speak and at what place. Above all is our inalienable right to the Jeffersonian doctrine of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Anybody, institution or government, has no place in determining what kind of views are allowed to be expressed. Ultimately, we are all sovereign individuals and should be treated as such. The violation of anyone’s right to speak should be resisted, and I applaud the University of York for allowing this event to go ahead. When I first came to this University, I never thought cancel culture would come to our shores. But evidently it has, and I call on all freedom-loving libertarians to resist its scourge.