Content warning for discussions related to misogyny, rape, and rape culture
Over the last few weeks, there’s been a few fairly successful challenges to a few particularly noxious high-profile representatives of rape culture. Dapper Laughs has had his ITV show pulled and retired his character; the board of Sheffield United have now been forced to back down on their sickening statement in which they claimed unrepentant rapist Ched Evans shared their values, as “the reaction to this has been at an intensity that could not have been anticipated when first announced”; and the Home Office have denied Julien Blanc access to the country.
But one of these things is not like the others. Having an ITV show or a career as a professional footballer is not a basic right, it’s a rare privilege that only a few people will ever have access to. In contrast, freedom of movement is something that’s important to pretty much everyone, and so I find myself suspicious of the idea that the Home Office using its powers to keep people out of the country can be a progressive force for good.
Debates over “freedom of speech” and “censorship” often take place on a fairly abstract level, and I don’t think these concepts are much use unless we define exactly what we mean by them. On one hand, there’s what we can call a limited, “weak” sense of free speech, which can be summed up as “the government should not be able to use the law to stop me saying this particular thing.” On the other hand, there’s the much more extensive, “strong” sense of free speech, which is frequently used to advance an argument along the lines of “I have the right to use this particular platform to say this particular thing, and all the money, time and other resources needed for this particular platform to function should be used to amplify my voice when I say this particular thing, and none of the people whose work is needed to make this platform function should have any say over how it is used.”
As should be clear from my summary of the second, “strong” sense of free speech, I don’t think it makes much sense as a principle, and it certainly doesn’t serve as much of a defence for hateful misogyny like that peddled by Blanc. But, having said that, I still think the first, “weak” sense is still an important principle worth defending.
So, for those of us who don’t want to see scum like Julien Blanc giving seminars in how to harrass women, but also don’t trust the tories – or any other set of politicians – to define what is and isn’t acceptable speech, the challenge is to find ways to stop him speaking, without giving the government opportunities to clamp down on everyone’s freedom of speech. To use a comparison with anti-fascism, that’s the difference between a fascist march being stopped by the state banning it, and one being stopped by local residents lining the streets to block it. As a great statement from London Antifascists put it, state repression of our enemies should cause “no tears, but no gloating either.”
This might all seem a bit abstract and pedantic – if stopping Blanc speaking helps challenge rape culture, who cares how it happens? But the question of agency is crucial here. Ordinary people deciding that we don’t want Blanc peddling his hateful ideas and encouraging sexual assault, and taking action to stop him, is empowering, and it certainly seems plausible that the same grassroots pressure that lost Dapper Laughs his career and caused SUFC to back away from Ched Evans could easily have pressured any venue willing to host Blanc into cancelling the bookings. But there’s nothing liberatory about politicians making those decisions on our behalf: the power they use in a way we approve of today can just as easily be used against us tomorrow. This isn’t an abstract theoretical point, it’s a lesson that’s been hard-won through the actual experience of state power, from the laws that were brought in against Mosley’s blackshirts being used against striking miners to racially aggravated public order offences being used to criminalise Asian teenagers saying provocative things to Canada’s feminist-backed laws being used to crack down on lesbian, gay and feminist literature.
It’s important not to be over-dramatic, of course. No new powers are being created here, and the Home Secretary’s powers to exclude individuals the state considers to be undesirable would not suddenly disappear if feminists just refrained from calling on her to use them. Considering all the uncountable injustices in the world, it would certainly be a very poor use of anyone’s time to campaign for the government to drop the ban so we could go about denying Julien Blanc a platform in a properly democratic, bottom-up way. Still, in future, it’s worth thinking about how we can campaign in ways that strengthen grassroots forces that are consistently opposed to rape culture and misogyny, instead of just calling on the tories to behave like good feminists and hoping they don’t use their powers against us.