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Should feminists be no-platformed?

HOLLY SMITH, JUDITH SUISSA and ALICE SULLIVAN explain why they will be taking a motion on academic freedom to discuss sex and gender to this year’s UCU Congress

AT THE University and College Union (UCU) Congress later this month we will be proposing a motion HE32 “Academic Freedom on Sex and Gender.” 

Although academic freedom is a foundational value of higher education and indeed democracy itself, this freedom is under attack. 

It has been deeply disappointing to see the UCU remain silent as case after case is exposed of slander, defamation, misrepresentation, organised attempts to “no platform” and incite harassment, and conspiracies to have female academics sacked. 

We believe it is a basic right for all workers to take part in the democratic process without fear of losing their livelihoods. 

UCU has existing policy on academic freedom, of course, as a long-established principle. 

However, UCU as an organisation has chosen to remain silent; there are no press releases or interviews with the leadership when these shocking stories are covered. 

We gained some insight into why UCU might be unwilling or afraid to speak out in defence of members when we put the motion to our own UCU branch general meeting and wrote about why for the Times Higher Education. 

Many UCU members who disagree with us regard the use of violent threats as unacceptable, but argue that some feminist academics deserve to be no-platformed for what they write.

So let us examine the case for no-platforming as a political strategy. 

The left generally shares the liberal view of political dissent as vital to democracy and opposes censorship. 

However, the limit of this general principle arises in the case of fascist speakers. The basis for no-platforming fascists is often misunderstood. 

The argument is not that fascist speakers have dangerous ideas which might influence workers, but that it is dangerous to share platforms with fascists who try to shut down democratic debate through the use of violence against opponents. 

No-platforming is not based on moral repugnance for a speaker’s opinions; it is based on a pragmatic judgement on whether the speaker is a member of a fascist organisation and has a track record of assaulting opponents. 

Anti-fascist protests represent a pragmatic strategy of direct action to stop rallies inciting racist violence, vandalism and thuggery. 

Arguments about whether to no-platform any speaker therefore focus on whether the speaker or the organisation they represent seek to participate in democratic processes, and their records on inciting and committing acts of violence.

Feminists who stand accused of transphobic bigotry and calls for no-platforming include public intellectuals such as Germaine Greer and Camille Paglia, feminist activists such as Linda Bellos, Beatrix Campbell, Helen Steel and Julie Bindel, academics such as Rebecca Riley-Cooper, Holly Lawford-Smith, Selina Todd, Kathleen Stock and Rosa Freedman, “national treasure” Dame Jenni Murray and lesbian icon and tennis champion Martina Navratilova. 

None of these women are members of fascist organisations. None of these women have a record of using or inciting violence against anyone. 

Many feminists accused of transphobia have years of experience working with and campaigning for the rights of vulnerable women and victims of sexual violence. 

Attempts to conflate Jenni Murray with fascists reveal a crass disregard for the real dangers of fascism.

Despite reassurances that feminists fully support trans rights, the accusation is frequently made that simply speaking about biological sex at all is “transphobic.” 

To comprehend these accusations it is necessary to examine differing accounts of sex, gender and what it means to be trans. 

Second-wave feminists define sex biologically and gender as the sex-role stereotypes imposed on people because of their sex. 

A transsexual is defined as someone so unhappy with their sex that they desire to be seen by society as a member of the opposite sex, and seek surgery and cross-sex hormones to achieve an appearance more like the opposite sex. 

These definitions do not question the material reality of sex, and second-wave feminists stand in solidarity with transsexuals as both suffer from the imposition of gender. 

Trans rights in this view are protection from harassment or discrimination on the grounds of “gender reassignment” in the Equality Act 2010, and campaigners call for better resources for treatment and greater acceptance of gender non-conformity. 

Third-wave feminists influenced by post-modernism and queer theory celebrate individual choice above all else. 

In this view, biological sex is a social construction, and the political demand is not to oppose sexist stereotypes, but to abolish sex as a meaningful category, replacing it with “gender identity” which is innate and determined by self-report. 

The further claim that, through the act of self-identification, a male person actually becomes female, and has always been female, presents both metaphysical challenges and practical dilemmas in many spheres of life. 

Many feminists question this, raising concerns that removal of the category of sex makes it impossible to speak about sexism, prevents equal opportunities monitoring of sex discrimination and representation in all fields, and undermines legal rights to single sex spaces. 

Many trans people also reject this definition because as materialists they cannot accept the denial of the material reality of sex

Some have concerns that it undermines the case for resources for treatment, as transgenderism is reframed as an identity not a medical condition. 

Trans rights in this view are the right to have self-declared gender identity accepted as sex in absolutely all circumstances. 

By this definition any distinction at all between women and transwomen is deemed transphobic bigotry. 

The definition of transphobia becomes so all-encompassing that the material reality of sex itself is transphobia. 

All feminists who speak out in public experience some backlash, sometimes violent and misogynistic, from men’s rights activists, Incels and the far right who share two common beliefs — that women should confine themselves to the domestic sphere, and that in Western societies today men are an oppressed group. 

We reject both and believe that nobody on the left should attack feminists for speaking out about their experience of oppression or insult us with terms like “feminazi” or “Terf.” 

We hope that trade unionists who have worked alongside us for decades of unglamorous but essential workplace trade unionism, community campaigns and anti-fascist activity can show us the respect of engaging civilly with us, instead of dismissing our concerns as bigotry. 

Post-modernists who do not think sex is a material reality, who believe that there is no objective definition of male and female, that there are no consistent differences between male and female bodies, and furthermore that any such claims are literally “hate speech,” may be inclined to vote against our motion. 

Materialists who believe that humans are sexually dimorphic and that the differences between male and female bodies have some political significance may instinctively vote in favour of our motion. 

But all union members in a sector faced with increasing precarity, marketisation and managerialism must surely recognise that academic freedom cannot be taken for granted, but must be robustly and consistently promoted. 

You could find yourself accused of bigotry and subject to a witch-hunt or disciplinary action for making any observation at all about sex differences, and you will need your union to support you.

For further reading on the conflation of feminists with the far right visit mstar.link/SexismKiriTunks.

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