Feminism, Free Speech, Top Stories

The Feminist Case for Free Speech

“I will teach you to learn your place as a woman in this world. Then you will eat my cum.”

“SHUT YOUR WHORE MOUTH… OR I’LL SHUT IT FOR YOU AND CHOKE IT WITH MY DICK.”

“WOMEN THAT TALK TOO MUCH NEED TO GET RAPED.”

These were just a few of the tweets sent to British journalist Caroline Criado‑Perez when she campaigned to include women on British banknotes. Criado-Perez is hardly alone. On average, American men receive (and send) more online abuse than women. But gender-based online abuse targets women twice as often as men. In the UK, prominent female journalists receive about three times as much abuse as their male colleagues. Understandably, many women feel deeply uncomfortable participating in public debates in which ‘arguments’ consist of abusive messages, including threats of rape. The problem of online misogyny may be among the reasons why significantly more American women than men favor online safety over freedom of speech (63 percent vs. 43 percent). Women are also less supportive of tolerating hate speech than men (51 percent vs. 61 percent), are more supportive of laws targeting online abuse than men (36 percent vs. 24 percent), and 54 percent of American women favor banning sexually explicit public comments compared to 36 percent of men.

Credible threats of rape or other forms of sexual violence are typically not protected by free speech and should be vigorously prosecuted. But – depending on the jurisdiction – much online abuse falls below that threshold, and is therefore not illegal. For anyone concerned with gender equality, inaction is clearly not an option in the face of virulent online misogyny. Could it be time to reassess global standards of free speech to mute misogynist trolls and amplify the voices of women?

As we debate this question, however, we must not forget how important freedom of speech has been to the empowerment of women. Restricting speech may therefore prove to be a cure worse than the disease it is intended to treat. This dilemma is highlighted by a new study from Amnesty International that urges Twitter to clamp down harder on gender-based abuse and threats of violence. But the study operates with a broad definition of abuse which may include:

[O]ffensive, insulting or abusive language or images directed at women on the basis of their gender and is intended to shame, intimidate or degrade women. Sexist or misogynistic abuse often includes references to negative and harmful stereotypes against women and can include gendered profanity.

While the study reports a shocking number of rape and death threats, it also includes examples such as “Are you a boy or a girl?” and “Are you really a man?” While such comments are clearly meant to offend and do nothing to further constructive debate, they are clearly less intimidating than threats. The Amnesty study also shows that the majority of the comments identified fall into the hard-to-define categories of “abuse” or “sexism/misogyny” rather than “threats” (direct and indirect), the posting of intimate pictures without consent, or the disclosure of personal details, all of which will often fall outside the protection of free speech. The study urges both Twitter and governments to do more to counter these phenomena, including the use of “criminal penalties.” However, if governments and social media companies adopt an overly broad definition of “abuse,” they may risk hurting rather than strengthening the rights of women in the long run.

Throughout history, the denial of free speech has been instrumental in keeping women disenfranchised and subordinate, and the exercise of speech has been crucial to climbing every rung of the long ladder toward equality. Although ancient Athens was the birth place of democracy and free speech, women were excluded. Aristotle (in)famously wrote that, “Silence is a woman’s glory.” But uninhibited speech allowed writers like Sophocles and Aristophanes to write tragedies and comedies that restored female voices and agency. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, women weary of the war between Athens and Sparta refuse their husbands sex until they agree to end hostilities. Aristophanes may not have been a proto-feminist, but Lysistrata has inspired women and outraged the defenders of patriarchal oppression ever since. For decades, importing and distributing the play was forbidden, even in the US.

In the Roman Republic, women were also cut out of the power loop and forbidden from serving as magistrates and voting in assemblies. In 195 BC, two magistrates proposed repealing a law prohibiting women from wearing luxury items, including expensive clothing. The proposal ignited a tumultuous debate around the Forum. But, in history’s first Women’s March, Roman women found their collective voice. The ancient Roman historian Livy records that:

The matrons could not be kept at home by advice or modesty or their husbands’ orders, but blocked all the streets and approaches to the Forum…The crowd of women grew larger day by day. Soon they dared even to approach and appeal to the consuls, the praetors, and the other officials.

The sight and sound of women protesting in public was shocking to many Roman men. Cato the Elder, a deeply conservative politician, insisted that women needed “guardians” and should be “under the control of fathers, brothers, husbands.” But now “Heaven help us! [We] allow them even to interfere in public affairs.” But Roman women persisted and – in a spectacular political victory for the women of Rome – the law was repealed.

Hypatia

Hypatia was Alexandria’s most brilliant mathematician and philosopher in the late 4th Century AD. She was also a pagan at a time when the Roman Empire had become Christian and intolerant of pagan ideas on religion, philosophy, and science. Hypatia’s prestige became a thorn in the side of Alexandria’s fanatical bishop Cyril, who was known for using gangs of thugs to enforce his religious intolerance. Hypatia was blamed for the poor relations between Alexandria’s governor and Cyril, and soon rumors spread that Hypatia used magic and witchcraft to beguile the governor and turn him away from the Christian faith. In 415, the incitement against Hypatia culminated with a mob of fundamentalist Christians dragging her through the streets to a church. According to one account, her assailants stripped her naked and used broken tiles to cut off her flesh before burning her mutilated body.

Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793)

1300 years later, the Enlightenment would produce its own female martyrs to freedom of expression and thought. During the French Revolution, the feminist writer Olympe de Gouges drafted the “Declaration on the Rights of Women,” boldly declaring that “Woman is born free and remains equal to man in right.” (A right overlooked by the original 1789 Declaration on the Rights of Man.) But when De Gouges criticized the increasingly extreme measures of the revolutionaries, she was arrested for attacking the sovereignty of the people. In her Declaration, De Gouges insisted that no one should be persecuted for their opinions: “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold, so she should have the right equally to mount the rostrum.” She was denied the latter, but granted the former on November 3, 1793 when she was guillotined for her opinions.

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)

Free speech has been particularly important to women from minority backgrounds. In the 1890s, Ida B. Wells had become a shareholder in a newspaper called the Memphis Free Speech, and she used her platform to expose the systematic lynchings of black people. Her investigative journalism showed that lynchings were not about upholding law and order or protecting white women, but were simply a brutal way of subjugating black people and enforcing white rule. Wells did not mince her words, and might well have become an American Hypatia. A furious editorial in a white newspaper responded that “the black wretch who had written that foul lie should be tied to a stake at the corner of Main and Madison Streets,” tortured with “tailor’s shears,” and “then be burned at the stake.” The incitement worked. The office of the Free Speech was stormed by a mob, the press was destroyed, and the premises burned. Death threats reached such an intensity that Wells was forced to flee to Chicago. From there, she would continue to exercise her free speech rights and campaign for the advancement of black people and all women.

Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

Emma Goldman, also known as “the High Priestess of Anarchy,” was a Russian-Jewish immigrant who became a passionate advocate of free speech, free love, women’s rights, and anarchism in the late 19th Century. Her shocking views on morals and her abrasive personality led to many clashes with the law, and she was repeatedly harassed and arrested. In 1916, she spent two weeks behind bars for distributing pamphlets advocating birth control. When she subsequently became a vocal opponent of American participation in World War I, she was sentenced to 2 years in prison and deported to the Soviet Union. Admittedly, Goldman’s ideological anarchism has not aged well. But on women’s rights, some of the ideas that conflicted with polite opinion and the law are not so different from the views that thousands of American women loudly express in Women’s Marches across the US today.

When comparing contemporary gender inequality and press freedom around the world, a clear pattern emerges. Five of the top 10 countries listed in the 2016 Gender Inequality Index – those with the highest levels of gender equality – are also listed among the top 10 of countries with the greatest levels of press freedom. Only two countries fall outside the top 20. Conversely, among the 10 countries with the least gender equality, only four nations made it into the press freedom top 100 and only one climbed into the top 50.

Correlation is, of course, not the same as causation, but recent examples support the historical examples above regarding the vital importance of free speech for women. In February 2018, 29 Iranian women were arrested for protesting the country’s compulsory headscarf law, which is used by the country’s clerical regime to subjugate women. In Russia, the female punk-group Pussy Riot was sentenced to harsh penalties for protesting the close relationship between the Putin Regime and the Orthodox Church, and two members of the group have subsequently sought asylum in Sweden. In March 2015, a 27-year-old Afghan woman named Farkhunda Malikzada suffered Hypatia’s horrific fate when she was beaten to death and burned by a mob on the streets of Kabul after rumors were circulated that she had desecrated a Quran.

In the developed democracies of the West, meanwhile, a mere hundred years separate an era in which women who voiced their opinion on controversial issues were harassed and jailed, from the current era in which that right is taken for granted. Both the data and the examples of past and present ought to remind us that, in the struggle for women’s rights, the centrality of free speech to the quest for emancipation and equality must not be taken for granted.

 

Jacob Mchangama writes and narrates the podcast “Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech.” He is also the founder and director of Justitia, a civil liberties think tank in Copenhagen. He has written and commented extensively on free speech and human rights, including in the Washington Post, the NY Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal Europe, and The Economist. You can follow him on Twitter @JMchangama and @CAPD_freespeech

Filed under: Feminism, Free Speech, Top Stories

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Jacob Mchangama is the founder and director of Justitia, a civil liberties think tank in Copenhagen. He has written and commented extensively on free speech and human rights including in Washington Post, NY Review of Books, Wall Street Journal Europe and The Economist.

21 Comments

  1. Caligula says

    What’s interesting here is, the PoV here seems to be entirely “Is free speech good for women?” rather than, “Is free speech good?” If free speech could be implemented as a right that only women have, would the author support that?

    Is free speech a universal value, of value to all persons? Or is one to consider that free speech might be good for some but bad for others, and if so decide whether or not to support it based on its effect on whatever group(s) one identifies as? What if it sometimes promotes women’s interests but at other times thwarts them, is a feminist then to support free speech only in the former case but oppose it in the latter?

    “Feminism” seems all but impossible to define, yet this essay seems to support a definition of feminism as “the radical idea that only women are people” (or at least that only women’s concerns need be considered). At best it supports a claim that feminism is “advocacy for women,” not “advocacy for equality.”

    What is the point in considering only whether free speech is and has been good for women, rather than a basic element of human freedom and thus of value to all?

    • Travis says

      Feminism:

      -The radical belief that (only) women are people

      This is a more apt (and cutting) definition, and is perfectly compatible with a focus solely on women.

    • Robert Paulson says

      I was about to write a comment expressing the same sentiment. I have seen a lot of articles to the effect of “free speech is good for women” usually buttressed by historical examples where women spoke out in the face of political opposition or oppression and that jettisoning free speech now may come back to haunt women in the future.

      The problem with this perspective is that it presumes that women are still marginalized/oppressed and that men / “The Patriarchy” still hold institutional power. From what I can see, the fact that women are demanding, and are indeed getting, institutions such as major tech companies, governments and academia to clamp down on speech, both online and off, and enshrining expansive, subjective and vague definitions of “harassment” that often entrap innocent men shows that not only are women not marginalized, they hold institutional power.

      Since women now hold institutional power, the “free speech is good for women” argument is simply not applicable at this point since it is not women’s speech that is under threat. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case – women have no trouble expressing their opinions and making demands, even when those opinions are hateful and their demands unreasonable or oppressive. They can do so publicly and without professional consequences, whereas men as confined to the dark corners of the web to vent their anger in the safety of anonymity since if their beliefs were to be come public, they could lose their job and have their professional or personal lives ruined.

  2. While the study reports a shocking number of rape and death threats, it also includes examples such as “Are you a boy or a girl?” and “Are you really a man?”

    That’s not an unfair question. It’s 2018. Many of the most prominent ‘feminist’ have penises. Some of them use sexually explicit threats against women who question their womanhood. When a woman questions Danielle Muscatto’s gender and she retorts ‘I’m a woman and anyone who disagrees should suck my dick’ who is the victim of misogyny?

  3. Online bullying is completely deplorable and I don’t condone in any way, but getting the government involved to regulate that would be the worst possible scenario, and the reason for that is I don’t trust the government to define ”hate speech”. I support private companies to regulate it and ban users on their platform, as is their right as a private business, I just wish they wouldn’t apply a double standard. These days any conservative or even any reasonable anti-feminist statement could be seen as hate speech. Let’s not even get into the popularity of the concept of “micro-agressions”. Did you guys see the movie Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock? I swear that movie ages better over time.

  4. Burlats de Montaigne says

    It is unfortunate that you chose to start your piece with the Caroline Criado‑Perez banknote case. The perpetrators of the abuse campaign were actually a man AND a women. They were both prosecuted, and jailed; he for 8 weeks, she for 12. The Guardian Newspaper did an extensive survey of online “abuse” (this included people calling each other “douchebags” on Youtube FFS) and concluded that the perpetrators of “abuse” were split roughly 50/50. So your attempt to gender the issue is questionable, to say the least.

    • Travis says

      What even is “gender based” online abuse?

      This just comes off as another feminist attempt to turn non-gendered issues (such as domestic violence) into gendered issues with women as somehow being more of a victim (even though they suffer from less of it).

      Do they mean that women are abused differently than men? DUH. Men and women are peeved by different things. People tailor their abuse to the target. ESPECIALLY when talking about troll behavior

      • Burlats de Montaigne says

        “What even is “gender based” online abuse?

        It’s Cathy Newman, copping a bit of flak for a car-crash interview – and publicly announcing hat she is calling in some “security” experts to protect her from nasty words and Dr. Peterson, who received ten times the digital hate, just shrugging his shoulders and saying ” it goes with the the territory”.

    • kris says

      Precisely. Some of the worst abuse I have received on line is from women. Maybe its because they would never dare do it in real life but the unrealistic world of the internet gives them the freedom and pleasure to let fly.

  5. Mateo del Toro says

    I am heartened to see these thoughtful comments. Like civil rights marchers weren’t call awful things and threatened. But we didn’t revoke free speech then. I would tell the ladies, people can be terrible (especially online). But people being terrible as they sometimes are, is not a valuable reason to rescind free speech. #backwardslogic

  6. The Scottish police recently prosecuted a guy for getting his dog do a Nazi salute. ‘Harassment’ can simply mean making repeated requests when your MP doesn’t answer your emails. I don’t trust the authorities to define what is and what isn’t abuse. Like the libel laws they will protect the rich and be enforced by the kind of police who would shit themselves if faced with a shoplifter, let alone a terrorist.

  7. phinehas68 says

    Free speech is a good idea iff you believe that truth will win out over falsehood where both can be freely expressed. Gender is irrelevant to this question.

  8. Verbu says

    Here’s the exact language Amnesty International used in a recent mailing:

    “Women—and all people—have a right to live free from violence. The effects of online violence and abuse are very real. In addition to silencing women’s voices, online violence and abuse can also have a worrying psychological impact on women who experience such abuse.”

    “Businesses like Twitter have a duty to respect human rights in its operations. The company’s failure to enforce its own policies against violence and abuse is negatively impacting women’s rights to freely express themselves online without discrimination and fear.”

    With this wording, Amnesty has seamlessly shifted to the currently-in-vogue usage of the word “violence,” which includes harsh words as well as physical attacks, all the way up to torture and imprisonment. At same time, the term “verbal abuse” has been rounded off to “abuse.” And one can now “silence” a person’s speech by failing to silence speech that antagonizes them. It is easy to read this as “I only have free speech when you don’t.”

    The reason I’m on their mailing list in the first place is because I support Amnesty’s mission against torture and the brutal suppression of political dissidents currently taking place around the globe. If this message signals a shift in Amnesty’s priorities, from advocating for political prisoners to advocating against rude language, it does not bode well. There are, after all, still people being jailed and tortured for their political views. Should I now assume that a few nickels of every donated dollar will be diverted from that campaigns to free them to this more fashionable battle for stricter Twitter controls? Is Amnesty now promoting this revised definition of free speech in its universal human rights standards?

    I can only infer that as the young graduates from the best schools enter the activist non-profit sphere, they are bringing their priorities with them. Either that or Amnesty has been on the receiving end of a Twitter pressure campaign and are tripping over themselves in a rush to comply with its demands.

  9. Women need to grow a pair and learn to ignore trolls. It’s one thing to receive actual threats, or be doxed or harassed at work, but the other stuff is not worth a response or reaction.

  10. kris says

    This article suggests that women are the weaker sex. The pathetic tweets that started thi discussion obviously come from people who dont deserve the oxygen that is being given them. The simple answer is ignore them, block them ,whatever, move on. When I first started commenting on the internet I was quite shocked at some of the disgusting language and personal abuse directed at me from the inevitable trolls who disagreed with me. But i very soon learnt to ignore it, in fact i saw it as a good sign that I was winning the argument. Why cant women do the same thing? After all they claim to be the same as men but it is clear they are not. They cant take personal abuse because they are too emotional, they suffer bouts of trauma just over words that dont even deserve consideration. They now want special Free speech laws just for them??!! Give me a break.

  11. Paul Peterson says

    Free speech is about being able to express oneself without censorship. As social media grew and the anonymity grew with it, people used free speech to express discuss and anger. Used it to placate negative emotions and give in to crude, rude, deleterious, hate full speech. Though I’m a free speech advocate and will defend someones right to be mean and obscene in their speech, i do not think this was what was what was in the minds of those who died for the right of free speech.

    Maybe as to opposing speech that is offensive(which is subjectively defined), we should promote integrous speech. Applaud those with valid sanguine points and ignore those who with to remain crude. Delight in people’s wit and humor and not reward those who troll for effect. Even if we hate and dispise the person and their ideas maintain respect as we illiminate their logic with truths.

    Integrity of speech, honesty, openness, willingness to listen and learn are needed to acheive something as close to the truth as possible. This is required for a society to become more enlightened. Nobody no matter how they follow their dogma or doctrine has a lock on the total truth. There are the limits of our naive human mind. For everyone choose what they percieve to be the truth, however no one can tell the truth from the false…..Socrates

  12. W Morkes says

    The author shouldn’t be loose with historical facts or use moral equivalencies as it distracts from the main point and makes the reader distrustful of other examples.

    The Hypatia murder was not a result of “Christian intolerance of pagan ideas on religion, philosophy, and science,” it was a political assasination.

    And your example of the Afghan women’s murder doesn’t highlight the lack of free speech for women but rather the institutionalized violence in Islam toward criticism.

  13. Katherine says

    The “Everyone-ist” Case for Free Speech

    The tragedy of our times is that we have lost our ability to honor speech. Free or otherwise. Debate, discussion, discourse… things of antiquity. We have a new attachment to emoting, opining. Our concept of free speech is limited to a means of self-expression. Forget “the other” in the process of communication. There is only Us. And if a person does not agree with Us, then it is very simple – is not a person.

    There is no room for change and growth. Where have all the questions gone?

    What is the purpose of speech?
    What are the roles of the participants?
    Can we agree upon rules for effective engagement?
    What do we do with those who do not subscribe to our point of view?
    Is there room in this world for differing viewpoints?
    Is the ultimate goal of speech and speaking to achieve sameness?
    What is the real meaning of diversity?
    Are there different paths to reach a common understanding?
    What do we have to fear from speech that is truly free?
    What do we do with the notion of “bias”? Is any speaker truly free of bias? Is any message?
    Which is more important: speaker, listener, message?
    At what point does speech become a weapon?

    The March for Women (both years of them) made me want to cry. As a woman, a daughter, granddaughter, wife, and mother. The images and messages were not of strength and dignity, but vulgarity and vitriol. Exclusivity masquerading under the term “intersectionality.” If a person did not fall into the exact point where the lines x met y, (where x = a woman of any gender and y = proabortion) – then that person was not welcome, was not given a voice, even if that person was a woman.

    The March seemed less an exercise in free speech, than a parade of mass confusion. The messages were not about empowering all women in every state. State of life, state in our union. But rather a shouting over of anyone who voted differently, believed differently, or who held classical notions of natural rights or how to exercise our constitutional rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    When I was in college (two brief decades ago), circles of friends, acquaintances, and strangers enjoyed talking and debating and philosophizing into the late hours of the night. Differences of thought and talk, diversity of voices – were welcomed and celebrated. Sharing in volume, quiet, sadness, anger, joy, laughter, and the occasional sense of the profound. Walking together or butting heads in a pursuit of answers to questions, important or inane.

    Now Universities are composed of major trigger spaces and safety bubbles. Minor “Free speech” zones with limited square footage are relegated to tiny narrow swaths on the edges of campuses.

    Professors are no longer quirky or staid sages in their fields from a variety of backgrounds, faiths, and political spectrums, but a monotone of heralds trumpeting one Progressive Voice. Throwing out students who disagree.

    Progress should not be a scary word. Diversity should not mean “everyone welcome except for you”. And free speech should not have to pass through a censor. Basic standards of common decency aside, who decides that which is good, right, proper, or allowable? Further, who decides whom that who might be?

    Trash talk, insults, inflammatory language, crudeness, belittling, bashing, and browbeating will always be with us. Whether lobbed at a woman or a man, a group or a gathering. We need to be able to name negativity for what it is.

    Womanhood does not have to be painted as eternal victimhood in order to gain respect or stregth. Victims are individuals who need to be assisted, possibly protected. All women are not victims, nor are all victims women.

    Free speech should be the tool that helps bring strength to an individual. Every individual.

    You bring your free speech, I bring my free speech. Let’s exchange words and ideas. I can learn from you, you can learn from me. Together, we can solve problems, discover new ones. Share our discoveries with others outside of our conversation. Help true victims. Teach other people to find and use their voices effectively. Tell stories of our histories. Celebrate, examine, connect.

    If we destroy the listener, fear diversity, run from questions, and child-proof the institutions of higher learning: how can progress be made in any area of human flourishing?

    • Valkyrie says

      Thank you Katherine. As an XX chromosomal human being, and one from a long line of such human beings, I have been dismayed by the rhetoric of those marches for the sake of closing your ears and chanting -nananana, I’m not listening!- As a human being it has more than an insult to insinuate that to be a human one has to be overly concerned with one’s gender (preference or no).

      I personally think that the whole crux is the lack of respect for, well, anything. My brother and I grew up equal and were never told that we were anything but. So as much as I sympathize with early woman’s rights advocates, those that were busy teaching their children the path to follow and that their sons and daughters admired, the current generation of ‘feminist’ are people I prefer to avoid. And I avoid any group or individual that tries to tell me how to think because that goes against everything I have come to believe is part of a free society. If you have ever read Adolphus Huxley’s Brave New World, even just the first four chapters, you can see why.

      Of course actual respect and actual understanding takes more effort than most people like so they say they do while ignoring the other party. Which leads those of us without camera time dismayed by what we see compared to what we know. The bright side of all this is when they break through the barriers caused by the confused educational state, we’ll have a few Socrates on the steps that won’t ask for our arms to have us listen to them.

      As for hate speech, the best advice against that; It is not what goes into your mouth that makes you unclean but what goes out from it. If degenerates think they won’t pay for it some way, the Universe isn’t as tolerant as they pretend it is.

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