Endangered Speeches: Debating the “Culture Wars”

Current Events Reporter  Isa Betoret García is a second year War Studies and History student who attended the controversial ‘Endangered Speeches’ event this past week at KCL. Here is a summary of events, and her thoughts on what went on that evening.

The 13th November launch of the ‘Endangered Speeches’ series with Dr Joanna Williams began with a show of appreciation, more so than usual, to those who had attended the event, and to those who had organised it. They were thanked for their ‘bravery’ and ‘courage’ in holding the event, but Dr Williams also acknowledged that’s she found it bizarre to have to thank them for such a thing in the first place.

The build up to this event was ripe with conflict and tension. Upon the audience’s arrival to the Strand reception they were asked to sign in, and they were given a bracelet to ensure they were truly on the list once they made their way to the Great Hall, which was being guarded by KCL security. Everyone was holding their breath, waiting for trouble.

A few days before the event a joint statement by the KCL Intersectional Feminist Society Committee and another 143 individuals and soceities was released in opposition to the event. This was on the basis that Dr Joanna Williams’ previous comments on transgender and non-binary people and the LGBTQ+ community, the #metoo movement, and feminism, were not only problematic but constituted a threat to students. The statement urged the Department of War Studies to rescind the invitation and issue an apology to the rest of the KCL community. This constitutes the latest effort to ‘No Platform’ a speaker that is considered to be a danger to students, or simply controversial, by a section of the student body.

Shortly after, the statement was supported by the KCLSU, who joined the effort to No Platform Dr Williams. They expressed support for trans- and non-binary students, and other sectors of the student body, as Dr Williams ‘has previously opposed provisions for transgender people, opposed the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault and has constantly undermined the feminist movement.’

Both agreed that we should use the opportunity of the ‘Endangered Speeches’ events to grant a platform to marginalised peoples who are not commonly given one.

On the other side of this debate, the KCL Libertarian Society issued a charged statement in defence of Dr Williams, claiming that the ‘absurd statement’ issues by the Intersectional Feminist Society was a clear example of censorship on university.

Tamara Berens, a member of the society and one of the organisers of the event wrote a piece on Spiked, the publication for which Dr Williams is a commentator and associate editor, titled ‘In Defence of Joanna Williams’. Berens argues that the claims made against Dr Williams in an attempt to No Platform her are ‘slanderous’. She states: ‘she [Williams] criticises identity politics from a pro-freedom, universalist perspective. She is not “hateful”, as this letter alleges.’ She then continues: ‘suggesting that women must conform to a particular view on certain social issues, or else be guilty of hating other women, is not only ridiculous – it is ugly.’

Due to these strong reactions it was no surprise that many attendees were nervous at the prospect of conflict or protestors.

Instead, the event was calm, quiet, and civil. Dr Williams and other free speech advocates took this as a victory, noting that none of the protestors had showed up in the end, and they were pleased this meant real dialogue and debate was possible. To them, it was a positive outcome.

But the reasons behind the lack of opposing opinions may more insidious, and in the end a much larger problem blooming from the free speech debates and No Platform movements.

Professor Michael Rainsborough, Head of the War Studies Department, led the conversation with Dr Williams. He justified his department taking an interest in this particular phenomenon, as it has become clear that conflict is not just about armies, but about passions, opposing views, and ideas; and as such, all War Studies students should take an interest in this ‘culture war’. Controversial issues need to be talked about, he added, not supressed just because they are deemed difficult.

In response Dr Williams opened by thanking Professor Rainsborough and the organisers, and then explaining one of key points one needs to understand her line of thinking: she does not believe that words are violence. Though she acknowledges that words, undoubtedly, are powerful, she sustains this is an important distinction to maintain.

Dr Williams expanded on her personal history, and what led her to be the person she is today. Growing up in the North East made her politically conscious at a very young age, as she grew during the closing of the industry sectors. These experiences led her to become a part of Militant, the youth Labour Branch, and eventually the Revolutionary Communist Party. Her views on free speech are a product of her left wing views, as it was the left who generally fought for these freedoms in the 80s and 90s. Now, however, it is the left who tends to advocates for shutting down debates and No Platform.

Dr Williams has become very conscious of the fact that her views on free speech make most believe she has right wing sympathies, when in fact she states she often would not even want to share a pint with people on that side of the political spectrum who hold extreme views.

Through the rest of the conversation she clearly outlined her views on freedom of speech, and how we got to the point of this perceived attack upon it. These echoed her book Academic Freedom in the Age of Conformity, touching upon the themes of the growing political homogeneity of academia, the growing perception of students being vulnerable and needing to be protected, universities as a product to be sold and students as a consumer that needs to be satisfied, the lack of intellectual risk taking, and the growing issue of universities becoming a bubble that ignore the real world outside of them.

Another key point of Dr Williams’ thought is her views identity politics and the shift of politics into the terrain of morality. She believes that when political views become a part of someone’s identity, having them challenged becomes an existential threat, which makes debate more inflammatory, as has been demonstrated over the past years.

The last section of the event, questions from the audience, allowed Dr Williams to elaborate on some topics and explore new ones Professor Rainsborough had not approached.

On identity politics she said that it was true that there was an expectation to conform to the ideas of the group they belonged in, echoing Berens’ earlier comments on her defence of her previous to the event.

Has society become increasingly polarised? Or is this a false perception? Are anonymous journals a solution? Is the calling for bans on speakers less about morality and more about a personal offense? How can our different frameworks (on how diverse people see the world) coexist? What would you say to those who protested this event? How can you speak with respect without trivialising mental illness? What can we do to manage the danger of freedom of expression? Has the rise of intolerance coincided with the rise of certain politicians?

All the questions asked by the audience were polite and civil, but there was very little debate, and very little questioning of Dr Williams’ position.

It is perhaps unsurprising that given the context of the event that an audience member asked Dr Williams to elaborate on her views on the LGBTQ+ community, and transgender people specifically.

As the libertarian society pointed out in their statement, if someone had read the statements issued to attempt to No Platform Williams, but not attended the event, would think she openly supports harm befalling trans people, when this is not the case.

Her comments are problematic, trans-exclusionary, and they are trans-phobic, and they have made many of us uncomfortable. However they do not come from a place of evil, but rather a fundamental misunderstanding of the trans experience. Dr Williams’ ideas could easily be classified as second feminist wave, ‘outdated’ ideas, based a feminine-masculine dichotomy, and a belief that there is a link between biology and sex. This does not excuse them, but it can shed a different kind of light on the discourse we should be able to have with her. Today a great many of us now that being a part of the LGBTQ+ community is not a choice, and not an idea you are indoctrinated into by exposure to it, and transgender people are no exception to this. Their experiences should not be invalidated.

Earlier, she stated that she believes she has been very consistent in her views through the years, even as the left continued to evolve. This may very well be true, but it is also the reason her views now seem out-dated, and even offensive, to many. Our views on the LGBTQ+ community and feminism have moved on. And many would argue, including myself, for the better.

The heavy sense of irony that permeated over the event, and over the discussion on No Platform, can be summarized in the last question, and more specifically the answer, asked by the president of Libertarian Society. It asked how we could bring back students who have been ‘lost’ back into the conversation.

Dr Williams answered: with events like this one.

When looking around the room, however, the sense of fear many had at the start that the event would be protested, the empty seats despite the full list, and the lack of opposing opinions tells a different story. Though the organisers of the event may have later celebrated the fact that no protestors showed up, and those protesting can be happy that the event was not as full as it was thought it would be, this was a victory for no one.

The irony is that Joanna Williams ended her talk by saying that having a space for debate means having a space to change your mind, and yet no one was there to debate her, to disagree with her, explain exactly why she is mistaken, and how her comments can be harmful. She welcomed the idea of her audience disagreeing with her, as I did, and how many others who did not come to the event do, and engaging her in debate. In fact, she believes it is a mistake to assume an audience at a university will blindly agree with a speaker. She expects people to disagree with her and engage. But no one did. And she, and others in the audience who might share opinions that are just as problematic on certain topics, continue to go with their views unchallenged.

People like Joanna Williams who are open to debate and the idea that people do change their minds can be educated in the issues we believe in as long as a real dialogue takes place.

There is a clear line in the sand that needs to be drawn with regard to what constitutes hate speech at university, and we must undoubtedly protect marginalised communities from attack. But letting views that can be harmful go through university unseen, either because an event is boycotted, or it is cancelled because of No Platform only puts them more at risk, as these ideas will pass through university without being engaged and challenged, they will reach the political and public sphere intact.

The irony is, the debate over free speech ended in silence.

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