by Robyn Banks
Once upon a time, there was a period in history when everyone on the left was in agreement. In this time of solidarity many campaigns were fought and won and nobody within the movement felt excluded. The boundaries of race, gender and class were broken down, sectarianism was a distant memory and everybody held hands and formed the party of the glorious left.
Of course, this period didn’t exist, and criticisms of pluralism based on this stance ring more like the dying gasp of the comfortable status quo than serious commentary. Minority groups such as women, LGBT people and people of colour have had to fight hard for their recognition in broader class liberation movements, as somebody like Peter Tatchell would know, but that’s not the impression you would get if you only read his recent writing. In a heated response to recent criticism by Norwich Radical Editor Chris Jarvis, he rails against perceived ‘sectarian attacks’ which he calls ‘the new left wing McCarthyism’.
He’s not the only one lamenting the death of ‘the future of progressive politics’. His name recently appeared alongside those of Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer on an open letter in the Guardian, which complained about No Platforming tactics at universities. Spiked magazine gave universities across the country ‘Red’ free speech ratings and the right wing press have lashed out to create a moral panic over intellectual censorship. As pointed out by Cherry Somersby, No Platforming has done more to raise the profile of some issues than any debate could have done, and I worry far more about threats to freedom of speech from the state through initiatives like ‘Prevent’ than I will ever fear a dictatorship of student activists.
I worry far more about threats to freedom of speech from the state through initiatives like ‘Prevent’ than I will ever fear a dictatorship of student activists
I’ve been incredibly lucky to grow up in a time when the internet has brought about a slow democratisation of knowledge. It was the internet which first introduced me to liberation politics through feminism, whose creep on to social media has led some to claim we are witnessing the birth of its 4th wave. It was through the internet that I was able to learn about, and read, Greer’s The Female Eunuch, the first feminist text I ever read. Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell – these are people who I discovered online long before University would give me access to academia, and who were seminal in the forming of my opinions.
Yet they warn never to meet your heroes, and while these people will always hold soft spots in my heart I cannot bring myself to condone their politics today. Like everybody else I engaged in the process of polishing off the rough edges of my politics as I got older, learning as I went, but even at 17 Greer’s rallying cry against trans women made me deeply uncomfortable. At university I discovered a lively, diverse and fiery left wing, which appealed for exactly that reason – they didn’t agree, and that was interesting. They were, however, all committed to working in everybody’s best interests, and to me that’s what has always been exciting about the left wing politics I’ve been involved in. It’s like a constantly evolving organism, working to include more and more people as it attempts to give voice to ever more diverse viewpoints.
At university I discovered a lively, diverse and fiery left wing, which appealed for exactly that reason – they didn’t agree, and that was interesting
At the centre of the recent moral panic on free speech is the long overdue trans people’s rights. Despite being seminal in the original Stonewall riots, the rights of trans folk in the LGBT+ conversation were overlooked among a sea of Greerist academics and white, gay men. Had they not been, whether or not they should be allowed in to public bathrooms would not be such a contentious issue. Many of the victims of this new censorship have been those calling for trans women not to be recognised as women as part of an outdated feminist politics. Seminal, yes. Progressive for their time, yes. But also, yes, outdated.
Today, things become outdated fast and that’s not the death of progressive politics, it’s an acceleration of progressive politics. When all it takes is one blog post from a minority voice who would usually be denied a platform for an idea to start circulating, it’s clear that the days in which we learned from a limited range of political heroes are gone. Criticism of a person’s politics can spread fast and unhindered by the biases of major media outlets and so too can a response, the ideal situation for free exchange of ideas. And yet, despite claiming to support a more equal structuring of knowledge, it’s these political heroes of old who hate most the loss of their uncritical and adoring fan bases.
The internet makes separating fact from fiction very easy. At the stroke of a key I can find out that Tatchell rarely displays the left unity he holds so dear. A letter from African LGBT activists begging him to stop putting their lives in danger seems to go unnoticed. An open letter outlining his hypocrisy on issues of free speech points out that he has, on many occasions, prevented people from publishing criticism of him. He has much to say to encourage the No Platforming of Muslim scholars whose stance he deems (in most cases rightly) as homophobic, yet has not much to say about visits from Homophobic Catholic preachers. Suggestions from gay Muslims that through this act of selection he bolsters Islamophobic sentiment are brushed off unconvincingly. He understands why people might find ‘Gay free zone’ stickers in Tower Hamlets threatening and thinks the perpetrator should have been punished more severely. He incorrectly suggests that a rise in homophobic violence in London is caused by the Muslim population. He writes for right wing newspapers to help them discredit left wing campaigns.
At the stroke of a key I can find out that Tatchell rarely displays the left unity he holds so dear.
It should be clear that the claims of Tatchell and others of his generation that they have been silenced in the pages of national newspapers is a performative contradiction. If you would No Platform a speaker who preaches that being gay is incompatible with Islam but not a speaker who preaches that trans acceptance is incompatible with feminism, it is not solidarity. If you would No Platform a speaker or musician of colour who doesn’t think gay people should be allowed into public bathrooms but not a white public speaker who doesn’t think trans people should be allowed, it is not unity.
To the media literate, the information is easy to find, and because of this Tatchell’s highly emotive article only seems factually lacking, and vaguely rash, in comparison to the many well thought-out criticisms online. This new left ‘purism’ of affording voices to trans and other minority students is nothing more than progression at a rate too fast for some to keep up, and as usual the McCarthyism comes from above and not from below.