Quick summery: Germaine Greer, a second-wave feminist famous for her 1970 book The Female Eunuch, was invited to give a speech at Cardiff University. Ms. Greer’s transphobia is well-known, gross, and undeniable. Rachael Melhuish, the Women’s Officer at Cardiff Unversity Students’ Union, started a petition asking for Cardiff to dis-invite Greer (aka “no-platforming” Greer), due to Greer’s bigoted beliefs, which 1346-and-counting have signed. The University said they wouldn’t rescind the invitation, but Greer now says she’s not going to go. And, of course, the usual suspects are calling this “censorship.”
1. Disinviting Greer wouldn’t be censorship.
It’s not censorship for activists to create a petition saying Cardiff University should cancel Germaine Greer’s scheduled speech. On the contrary, debates about who is or isn’t invited to speak are part of free speech. As Angus Johnston tweeted, “Censorship is suppression of speech. Criticism of speech isn’t censorship. Criticism of a decision to host speech isn’t censorship.”1
Greer has a right to free speech. She has no right, however, to be an invited speaker at Cardiff. Nor, once she is invited, does she have a right to not have that invitation questioned or criticized.
2. But it’s not great behavior, either, if we favor a “culture of free speech.”
Just because it’s not censorship doesn’t mean it’s a tactic I agree with. Universities, in general, should create a “culture of free speech” where contested issues – and unfortunately, transphobia is still within the bounds of acceptable beliefs in our society – can be spoken and debated. Pressuring Cardiff to disinvite Greer goes against that ideal. IMO, it would have been better to respond to the Greer lecture in other ways.
3. Attempting to disinvite Greer has been a publicity bonanza for Greer.
In the petition, Rachael Melhuish wrote:
Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society. Such attitudes contribute to the high levels of stigma, hatred and violence towards trans people – particularly trans women – both in the UK and across the world.
While debate in a University should be encouraged, hosting a speaker with such problematic and hateful views towards marginalised and vulnerable groups is dangerous. Allowing Greer a platform endorses her views, and by extension, the transmisogyny which she continues to perpetuate.
I agree that trans-exclusionary views should have no place2 in feminism or society. I agree that the existence of bigoted views such as Greer’s make the world more dangerous for trans people.
But getting Cardiff to cancel Greer’s speech (or, as things have turned out, persuading Greer to cancel) does not make the world any safer, or views such as Greer’s any less prominent. In fact, just the opposite. Due to the Streisand effect, dozens or hundreds of media outlets that would have ignored Greer are quoting her views. The petition to revoke Greer’s invitation has given Greer an infinitely bigger megaphone than just speaking at Cardiff could have.
And in a context of a university (or any other forum which makes a practice of hosting a variety of views), allowing someone a platform isn’t the same as endorsement of their views.
Yeah, it’s probably not possible, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be as disinterested as possible in the furthering of knowledge. I get the feeling that some of your egalitarian ideals could also be placed in this “noble but impossible” category.
Well yeah. Pretty much everything in the universe serves the interests of some groups and not others. As long as there are any differences from one individual to the next, it will be possible to categorize people according to those differences, and different situations will favor one difference over the other each and every time.
This isn’t how the furthering of knowledge works. I’m really glad that people like Darwin and Copernicus didn’t really care whether or not their knowledge would alienate people. Their contributions led to a better understanding of our world, and this understanding helps us to be better more ethical people in the long run. The universe we are trying to understand is most likely disinterested in us (it’s a bit arrogant to think otherwise) so any understanding will reflect that disinterest.
Do you really believe this is true in general, or do you simply have a problem with a few people on this particular blog? I have my own theory about those who argue for disinterested knowledge. They think that being correct is the first step towards being moral, and that a disinterested approach to knowledge is the best path towards more correct understanding. Even if it is impossible to be perfectly disinterested and perfectly correct, it is possible to be more disinterested and more correct.
To me, it feels like you value people’s feelings above truth, even at a university. If I completely misunderstood what your trying to say here, I apologize and I’d be interested in hearing what it is you are trying to say.
It will be a while before I have time to write a considered response to your question, so, if you have time, I’m wondering if you’d be willing to explain a little more fully how you read my comment such that you arrived at your question, which frames things in a way I would not have expected.
RJN, it is possible I completely misunderstood your entire comment, but you did write this:
The university is also responsible for being responsive to questions raised in the name of people’s humanity and equality about what knowledge is, how it is valued, taught, etc.
I see this as circular. What is humanity? What is equality? Does it exist as described? Should it? Is it even possible?
These are questions that students should enter college with an open mind about. These are the types of things people like Greer write about, and sometimes, they will offend us. I want to make it clear that I think Greer is wrong about trans people (and much else), but most people who tackle these subjects are going to be wrong. We need to encourage an atmosphere of open debate, even if it’s offensive, because every now and then, one of these offensive writers is going to be right, and we need to find out who they are by talking about them. Talks at universities are a good way to get ideas out in the open among thinkers. No one can further knowledge in a disinterested way, but we can make a system that tries. I think it’s good for us, even if some people, even marginalized people, are hurt along the way. I think it’s inevitable that people will be hurt Guys like Darwin and Copernicus taught the entire world that their most cherished definitions humanity were wrong, tearing down so many sacred values along the way, but we are all better for it. The same thing will happen again as we better understand how the mind works and more about our genealogy. Sacred values are going to fall as better (as in correct) ideas rise to prominence.
Am I still completely misreading your comment? Sometimes you write in a way that seems vague to me, and I definitely have a problem where I take things in a hyper-literal way. I mean, just to use the above sentence, what do you mean by “questions raised?” Like literally questions? Protestations? Demands? No one here is against students asking questions with regard to their humanity, so I’m sure you mean something else, but I don’t know what. And what does it mean if a college is “being responsive?” Does this mean giving into demands? Answering questions? Saying “I’m sorry?” Do all universities have this responsibilty? Just state funded ones? What if some students would prefer to go to Culture of Free Speech Universirty? Should they be able to?
I have been trying to figure out how to answer your question, but I confess to being a little bit flummoxed, since I still am not entirely sure what you’re asking. Whether it’s because I have not written as clearly as I could have or because you have misread me, I’m not sure. In any event, it’s important to remember that the comment you are focusing on was in response to something desipis wrote about it being the university’s job—and I understand university in this case to mean higher education, not one particular institution or another—to further knowledge, not protect people’s humanity and equality. Primarily because it does not reflect the experiences I had as a student, and reflects even less my experience as a college professor and professional academic (by which I mean someone engaged not simply in teaching, but in writing, publishing, presenting at conferences—in other words, the business of furthering knowledge), I simply don’t believe that is an accurate way of describing the university’s mission.
That does not mean I think that protecting people’s feelings is more important than furthering knowledge. (And I do need to say that I don’t understand the idea of protecting people’s humanity and equality to be primarily about protecting their feelings.) It means that I think the process of producing knowledge is always a negotiation between and among groups with competing needs and interests. The university is perhaps the primary the place where that negotiation takes place and so the university needs, therefore, to take it seriously when one party to that negotiation says “This aspect of what’s going on treats me like I am less than human.” This doesn’t mean giving in every time one group or another decides, for example, that it doesn’t like a speaker. It does mean, though, being prepared to disinvite a speaker like Germaine Greer, if the invitation does indeed turn out to be as ill-advised as the protesting party contends; and I would point out that, if it turns out to be that ill-advised, the problem will inevitably have to do with something a lot more serious than hurting the feelings of the people who are protesting.
Does this mean the university will always make the “right” decision? Of course not, if only because in most cases like this there no clear, unambiguous, single right decision to make, and because the people making those decisions are fallible human beings. I think, in the case of the Greer invitation, a good case can be made for both sides, and, as I said, I think the university made the right decsion in not disinviting her. Had they made the opposite decision, I would have disagreed with it, but I would have understood it.
Given that it did not disinvite Greer, I wonder what people would have had the university do. Shut down the petition? Surely that would have been a violation of free speech rights? It seemed to me that some people in this discussion argued as if they thought the petition had some kind of institutional authority behind it, which it did not. Rather, the petition was a form of protest, a formal one to be sure, but protest nonetheless, and Greer’s decision not to accept the invitation was a decision not to deal with that protest—which is a decision that every single person who ever gave a talk they knew would be protested had before them. Some, I have no doubt, made the same decision as Greer; others decided to give the talk anyway. It seems to me, in this case, that Greer was the one who didn’t want to have to deal with having her feelings hurt. (I am not presuaded there was a credible threat of physical violence against her.) All the university did was maintain its identity as a community where all members could have their say.
I’m not sure this answers your question, Jeffrey, but it’s all I’ve got for now.
I thought the university did the right thing. If I am to criticize anyone in this story, it would be the protesters. Not because they shouldn’t protest Greer’s ideas, but because of the poor (and IMO, slightly dangerous) reasoning behind their call for Greer to be disinvited. The university shouldn’t shut down a petition like this, but I think anyone who believes in the culture of free speech should tell the petitioners why they are wrong, and I think the best arguments for this have been voiced by Steven Pinker (and I swear there was a linked video in the comments, but now I can’t find it).
Anyway, I’m getting the idea that an important part of your point is this sentence:
Is this a prescriptive or descriptive position? Can you explain why the production of knowledge has to be a negotiation? I can think of times when the production of knowledge wasn’t negotiated.
I’m really glad that people like Darwin and Copernicus didn’t really care whether or not their knowledge would alienate people.
This is really an extraordinary statement. It contradicts basically everything I know about Darwin, and his life, and about Copernicus, and his life. Has there recently been some previously undiscovered source to show that Darwin, utterly contrary to how he acted in public and private, “didn’t really care” about alienating people?
Darwin and Copernicus didn’t care enough about alienating people to let themselves be silenced.
This is really an extraordinary statement. It contradicts basically everything I know about Darwin, and his life, and about Copernicus, and his life.
Yeah, I was super unclear there to the point of writing something incorrect. Sebastian cleared up what I meant.
RJN, You wanted an example of produced knowledge that is not a negotiation.
My dad is an engineer. It's his job to study proposed construction/demolition projects, and find failure modes that could result in an adverse environmental impact (asbestos exposure to workers is a common example). My dad produces knowledge by the simple act of thinking through a set of procedures and forseeing future problems. This isn't a negotiation. Simply by using his brain, he create knowledge about a certain project, and then he shares this knowledge in meetings, specs, phone calls, emails, you name it. I get the idea you see some sort of hidden negotiations in a situation like this one, and I'm curious to hear what they are.
I don’t mean to keep responding with questions, Jeffrey, but, based on your example, I am a little confused about what you mean by knowledge. Based on your description, it seems to me your father does the very important work of predicting potential problems–i.e., based on this evidence, and given this knowledge and experience which we already have, this bad thing might happen–but his predictions in and of themselves are not knowledge, at least not in the sense that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is knowledge, if only because they are predictions.
But to go with your example, for a moment. Even in your father’s case, whether or not his predictions are taken seriously, are taken into account, will of course be a matter of negotiation between and among the various entities who have a stake in the project.
Still, before we go any further, I do think it’s important that we agree on what we mean by knowledge. So, let me ask, what do you mean?
Darwin and Copernicus didn’t care enough about alienating people to let themselves be silenced.
But this is also untrue, if we take “in one instance, voluntarily not speaking about things you’ve already publishing because you’re afraid of backlash” as “silenced,” which it seems like, for the purposes of this conversation, you seem to be.
I’m by no means an expert on the history of science, but Copernicus, despite enjoying the support of the Pope and many other elites, held off on publishing De revolutionibus orbium coelestium for 30 years, until just before his death.
Darwin held off from publishing On the Origin of Species for 20 years, because he was worried about reactions to it.
So, by the standards being applied to Greer here, you’re wrong.
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On the topic of shutting down allegedly unsafe speakers, yesterday, Students for Justice in Palestine disrupted a speech by Moshe Halbertal who was speaking on “Protecting Civilians: Moral Challenges of Asymmetric Warfare”. According to an attendee, when he was finally able to speak, almost an hour later: Halbertal argued that in fighting “asymmetric wars” (typically, wars between professional militaries and insurgencies or resistance movements) professional combatants should err on the side of protecting noncombatants from casualties, even when they thereby increase risks to themselves or to their cause.
Apparently that kind of argument isn’t safe enough for these particular Palestinian supporters.
Carpenter makes a good point in his post “And ironically, those who espouse unpopular and minority causes would be most vulnerable in a world where mobs feel authorized on principle to decide who may speak.”
Looks like Germaine Greer is not the only person to get this treatment. Are any of you familiar with Julie Brindel? Apparently she’s been “no-platformed” at Manchester University because “Though she was not intending to talk about the transgender issue, the student union stated that ‘her views and comments towards trans people… could incite hatred towards and exclusion of our trans students.’”
Here’s one that hits close to home for me:
Why is a supporter of the 9/11 attacks being hosted at MIT?
The comments are interesting as well.
Yes, I am familiar with Julie Bindel (note the spelling).
As Bindel is British, it might be worth noting, in this ongoing discussion, that Americans and Europeans have a rather different perspective on the demonization of minorities. Since we Americans have managed to fight all of our recent wars in other countries, we probably feel the dangers a bit less acutely. Germany and the UK, among others, take the view that certain views are dangerous enough that their promulgation should be restricted legally. Who’s right? It makes for a fascinating discussion.
ps: I note that the following is still in my drafts from way back in October. I present it herewith in case anyone is interested.
Reading you closely, I think there may be a typo in that paragraph. Are you missing a “not”?
I broadly agree with this. But since I haven’t advocated for restructuring the community at large, I don’t know why you’re making this point.
Do you think that what I originally said and your own re-phrasing of it “against [me]” are essentially parallel cases?
Oh, for heaven’s sake. “Something scary?”
People are replying to me (among others) by arguing things that I broadly agree with. It makes me think that they think I think something I don’t think.
Same short post, next paragraph:
Those goalposts aren’t just moving, they’re ahead by a length and gaining.
Sebastian, could you point to anyone in this conversation who has advocated that Greer be banned from speaking?
It seemed to me that people in this conversation were starting to talk past each other, so I thought I’d inject some of Payton Quinn in her own words, because facts are handy when the hypotheticals start to fly thick and fast. I also sought to help clarify how a lot of trans people might approach an issue like this, where they’re coming from. I’m getting the familiar impression that I’m not getting through.
The no-platforming campaign against Bindel started in 2004, in 2007 she was the first person who attempted to raise the alarm about Rotherham, and in 2014 the story broke with a report which “conservatively estimated that 1,400 children had been sexually abused in the town between 1997 and 2013”. In 2015 the no-platforming continues, just let that sink in.
Grace maybe I shouldn’t respond to the short snippets because I’m not sure if you’re trying to say anything in particular. As for the “something scary”, the exact quote from the petition was:
I suppose I could have characterized it as “allowing her to speak was characterized as by the petitioners as dangerous” but that seems even less charitable to them than “something scary”.
Regarding the earlier characterization by Richard Jeffrey Newman that the real threat was mostly on the right: we now have the example of “safe space” being used to justify barring a journalist from reporting and then assaulting him to try to get him to leave the public square of the University of Missouri. CJR report. That combined with the coalition promoting internet censorship on university computers to promote safe spaces washington post cite gives us at least 3 prominent instances in the last 3 months where the rhetoric of “safe space” has been used in a way that runs against the grain of freedom of speech. Shutting down Bindle right when she was trying to get the word out about Rotherham shows the dangers from another angle.
It is a worrisome pattern.
What was especially jarring at that U. of Missouri incident is that among the people who restricted the First Amendment rights of journalists were an administrator for the University and a professor for mass media studies. For a professor of mass media studies – whose very existence depends on the First Amendment – to publicly call for physical action to be taken against a journalist exercising his First Amendment rights is perverted. Why she still has a job when she clearly hasn’t got a clue what she’s supposed to be teaching about is beyond me.
How to Write a “Political Correctness Run Amok” Article — Medium
This is an article by Julia Serano, mostly about the Greer controversy, and about Katha Pollitt’s article about the Greer controversy. I’m not sure I agree with every bit of it, but I found it excellent.
What gets me is the sheer hypocrisy from those who claim to be pushing for a “safe” campus, and yet have not said a peep about university staff who are caught organising violence against their fellow students.
Stephen Ira points out what happened when Greer spoke and people tried to engage her in the conversation some people want Payton Quinn to have with her.
Note that according to him, Greer has decided to give her lecture. So, although she was never actually no-platformed and withdrew herself, now she has no longer withdrawn.
Also, from the article by Julia Serano which Ampersand references at 119:
At the bottom of that piece, she has further thoughts in response to people who responded to her article. (Emphasis added.)
Here’s a case study for you on the First Amendment and where it applies. Do you find this acceptable?
At UT-Austin on November 13, 2015, a public event was hosted by Professor Ami Pedahzur of UT’s Institute for Israeli Studies titled “The Origin of a Species: The Birth of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Military Culture.” The invited guest speaker was Dr. Gil-Li Vardi from Stanford University. As the guest speaker started to speak, twelve members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) disrupted it and insisted on reading a statement. This went on for at least 6 and a half minutes. There’s a video at the link.
My question to you is, what do you think of this? My viewpoint is that they had no business disrupting the speech and should have been tossed out of the room by the campus police. They had no right to interfere with an invited speaker and force their message on an unwilling audience.
The video was made by the disrupters. It begins by saying “In response to a UT event glorifying the beginnings of the Israeli Defense Forces, we planned to make a two minute statement and then immediately leave. We have made these short disruptions at other events at UT.
But this time we were denied the right to speak and were physically intimidated by a professor and another scholar as we attempted to do so.”
I hold that they in fact had NO right to speak.
Here’s another example.
In this case, it is stated that in a presentation centering on ethics in warfare and the IDF’s actions during the Gaza War, 50 people showed up and shouted down the speaker for a half hour. After that, the (campus?) police showed up and removed the protesters to the adjacent hallway, where they proceeded to yell and scream for another 15 to 30 minutes to further disrupt the presentation. Note in the link that the group showed pictures of some of the disrupters being arrested and hauled off with the claim “No free speech for #FreePalestine” – they are asserting that because they were arrested for disrupting the presentation, their free speech rights were violated.
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Paris Lees weighs in, over at Vice: