In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, all but the most delusional bloggers have become keenly aware of the importance of free speech, and the need to defend it against those who would take it away. This has been quite a shift for a Britain that has, over the last few years, become increasingly obsessed with not causing offence to anyone at any time.
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This week, Spiked posted a well-publicised study into how free expression is being crushed in universities up and down the country in order not to confront students with ideas that might make them uncomfortable (though being challenged by new ideas is the very point of a university education, some might say). These bans – on everything from outside speakers to The Sun and Robin Thicke records – are often led by student unions, populated by our future politicians. So it’s a cause for concern.
And right on cue, a new case came to light. Comedian Kate Smurthwaite had her gig at Goldsmith’s College cancelled after feminist protests. Smurthwaite was immediately all over the media, commenting on how she was apparently “the wrong kind of feminist” and therefore had to be ‘silenced’ – that popular phrase used by people with high public profiles whenever anyone criticises them.
Of course, I was appalled by this story. I’ll admit to not knowing who Kate Smurthwaite was prior to this point, and upon researching her, she turns out to be a rather nasty piece of work – a vocal supporter of the ‘Nordic model’ in relation to sex work and someone not adverse to abusing sex workers on Twitter (‘rape enablers’ and comparisons to murderers are some of her charming claims) and who has trotted out zombie stats on the sex industry as fact. She’s campaigned against strip clubs, and is a supporter of Object.
But still, she’s entitled to the free speech that she wants to deny others. Not that she’s exactly short of platforms. Despite being an obscure and (as we shall see) rather unpopular comedian, she’s appeared on Question Time, for instance, and other TV discussion shows. Which rather suggests that she’s very much the RIGHT kind of feminist as far as the BBC are concerned – how many pro-porn feminists have had similar exposure? But if her show was closed down due to threats, then that’s clearly not on. We should combat horrible people and their horrible opinions by debate, not denial of platform – otherwise, it suggests that our arguments are as weak as those of Object. They might force Dapper Laughs out of business, but we are surely not that nasty?
But it doesn’t take long before this story sets the Bullshit Alarm ringing. It was the idea of her being “the wrong kind of feminist” that first raised my eyebrows. Now, I have no knowledge of the beliefs held by Goldsmith’s Feminist Society, but my experience of other feminist groups – especially student groups – is that the Nordic Model is hardly unpopular. Perhaps the feminists at Goldsmith are especially progressive when it comes to sex workers – though as 70 per cent of members had voted for the show to go ahead, perhaps they are not. The fact that they were co-organisers also suggests that they had no issue with her.
But let’s assume that the remaining 30 per cent were VERY angry and did indeed plan to protest. I have no idea how many people make up the Goldsmith’s Feminist Society, but I suspect that 30 per cent of the membership would not number in the hundreds. And there is no suggestion that this would be a violent protest – just sign waving and shouting. Uncomfortable for attending students perhaps (and we know how much they value their comfort) but a threat to security? Hardly. If Spearmint Rhino can cope with Object fanatics screaming abuse at XBIZ attendees, I’m sure this venue would have managed without calling in the riot squad.
But then, the Feminist Society has denied that any such protest was planned. This is unusual – usually, objectors are quick to crow about their victories, not issue denials. So where did the claims about a protest come from, if not from the Feminist Society? Well, they seem to have come from Smurthwaite herself.
To quote the event organiser on comedy site Chortle: “Kate told me 24 hours before that there was likely to be a picket with lots of students and non students outside the venue.” Ahh, I see. But why would Smurthwaite sabotage her own show? Well, perhaps the fact that after being on sale for “several” weeks, only eight tickets had been sold might offer up a clue. But that’s probably just me being cynical.
I’ve no doubt that in the fact of the alleged threat of protest put the wind up the venue, which will be governed by idiotic Student Union ‘safe space’ policies, which in theory are to ensure that all students can access venues equally, but in practice ensures that no difficult or challenging art, performance of discussion can take place – only opinions accepted by all (or, more accurately, by all the right people) can be expressed. In that sense, this is indeed related to the spate of university ‘no platform’ bans and suppression of free speech. But it also feels like a neat bit of manipulation. And while we might experience a spot of schadenfreude at one of the censorial having the tables turned on them, let’s not be fooled into thinking this is any sort of victory. The same thing could happen to any of us, but unlike Smurthwaite, we’re probably not going to get any invitations to appear on Question Time or TV panel discussion shows as a result. And unlike Dapper Laughs, she is unlikely to be ritually humiliated on Newsnight as her grossly offensive tweets to sex workers are disapprovingly read back to her. However much she might want to claim otherwise, Smurthwaite has in no way been silenced.