Free Speech, Top Stories

Theorising Out Loud

Of late, the Left has again become rather taken with the notion that marginalised groups suffer under unfettered speech. Ergo, it is argued, “Social Justice Warriors are the true defenders of free speech,” because selective censorship helps to compensate for power differentials and open public discourse to a diverse range of voices. Those concerned about the stifling of free expression are chastised for their ignorance of this insight into the workings of discourse. But this theory isn’t especially new, and it has a beleaguered history of which its proponents seem to be unaware.

Recent progressive suspicion toward free speech has relied for much of its authority upon the writings of feminist philosopher Catharine Mackinnon, who waged a war on pornography during the 1980s along with Andrea Dworkin. Together, Mackinnon and Dworkin wrote and advocated for local Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinances, which redefined pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights, in part because they alleged that pornography raises rates of sexual violence. Mackinnon also argued that pornography more broadly reinforces societal misogyny thereby suppressing women’s public participation, including their speech. Therefore, censorship was required to protect free speech, and a theoretically-informed state was required to intervene and correct for this social power imbalance. Which only leaves the question of who gets to select the authentic representatives of the marginalised and decide what must be censored in their interests?

Unfortunately for Dworkin and MacKinnon, there is no evidence to support their claims about pornography’s effects on women’s participation in public life. Data on pornography use (which we only have in spite of Mackinnon’s best efforts) show that women who consume it at similar rates to men are more likely to search for violent content. Since women also enjoy rougher content, it doesn’t obviously seem to represent and reinforce their subordination. Anti-porn feminists might chalk this up to internalised misogyny, but research on this is new and inconclusive.

It ought to be obvious that erotica is as complex and varied as human sexuality itself, and that no uniform “women’s” position on the topic exists for any philosopher or activist group to enforce on their behalf. Furthermore, in the same decades that internet porn has saturated the pubescent male experience, incidents of sexual violence towards American women fell steeply by 60 percent according to the Bureau of Justice. Since anti-pornography feminists were so wrong about pornography’s effects on rates of sexual violence, their claims of it’s wider social consequences against women should also be treated with skepticism. Lurid claims about pornography’s oppressive nature were derived not from data but from Dworkin and Mackinnon’s ideologically-informed assumptions and interpretations.

Lacking any proof that women feel (or, indeed, are) suppressed by pornography, Mackinnon’s justification for censorship simply fell apart. So why are Mackinnon and her ilk taken seriously when they claim to speak on behalf of all women? And why should we take other activists seriously when they make similar claims today?

Feminist standpoint theory sheds some light on what speaking for women really entails. Sandra Harding outlined this theory in her 1986 feminist critique of science, in which she argued that gender bias affects scientific inquiry. Men can understand their own privileged male perspective, she claimed, while women can understand both their oppressed perspective and the privileged perspective, which they absorb in a male-dominated milieu. And, as a result, women are less biased than men. Thus, “feminism and the women’s movement provide the theory and motivation for inquiry and political struggle that can transform this perspective of women into a ‘standpoint'” from which superior scientific work could be performed.1

However, Harding then went on to argue that “feminist critiques of social and natural science, whether expressed by women or by men, are grounded in the universal features of women’s experience as understood from the perspective of feminism.” [bold emphasis mine]2 Therefore, “feminist empiricism argues that women (or feminists, whether men or womenas a group are more likely to produce unbiased and objective results than are men (or non-feminists) as a group.” [bold emphasis mine]3

So, a man can understand and articulate women’s standpoint and speak for women if he is a feminist—and a woman cannot if she is non-feminist. For all we hear about lived experience, it appears that female experience—at least according to Harding—is not lived, but taught. It does not emerge from women as a group, but is created by feminists and imparted to them.

Theoretically, this standpoint is authentically derived from the “universal features of women’s experience” with which radical feminists begin. However, these features themselves are prefigured by a particular political tradition, as the concept of a universal female experience presumes that all women share a condition of oppression and exclusion from power. Having created “women’s experience” with their own political values baked in, feminists naturally extrapolate them out again. The legitimacy supposedly gained by speaking to power from the margins is both dubious and self-serving, since this marginalisation (and the epistemic and moral authority it allegedly bestows) is self-created.

The radical Left invents the “standpoints” it then claims to have discovered, investing them with its own concepts of power, oppression, and liberation. Only speech which opposes the power structure they have identified as the enemy can be authentic because that is the purpose of this concept; by definition, “women” are those excluded from and opposed to power. So, non-feminist women lack the woman’s standpoint because the feminists who created it did not consider them part of the “perspective of women” to begin with. Mackinnon’s challenge to free speech was simply a contrivance useful to the purposes of her crusade against pornography. Because she wanted pornography banned, she insisted without any evidence that all women were oppressed by its effects.

Speech codes serve their creators’ politics—’twas ever thus. On the radical Left, political factions insist that their contestable claims are indistinguishable from the urgent needs and interests of whole social groups. Anything contrary to their claims becomes suppression of these social groups which must therefore be censored.

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How have such dubious claims come to shape the limits of debate? Quite simply, their proponents do their utmost to silence those who might challenge them. Consider the campus de-platforming of feminists like Germaine Greer: the transgender are marginalised and the cisgender are powerful, therefore Greer’s opposition to the trans movement must be suppressed to enable trans people to speak freely. When Greer abandoned an appearance at the University of Cardiff after the usual outcry, writers such as Paris Lees waved away concerns about Greer’s “freeze peach,” and asserted that the suffering of the marginalised was the only pertinent issue.

The ongoing spat between “gender critical” feminists and trans activists is illuminating because it is precisely the theory that is at issue. The former dispute that trans women are a uniquely oppressed group of women deserving of deference from women who have cis (non-trans) privilege, and claim they are merely men bothering women as usual. They deny antipathy toward transgender people, instead rejecting the extremes of trans theory which obliterate the female body as a concept. What happens if the free speech side of a free speech fracas does not want not to use their speech to suppress that of the marginalised, and disputes this very framing of the issue?

Any such questioning of a presupposed victim group is itself considered suppression of the victim group, and summarily de-platformed. This obviously circular argument—that one cannot question theory of the marginalised group without suppressing speech from the marginalised group—justifies the censorship of honest critics, who are silenced before they can even challenge the assumptions on which their censorship is based. Destruction of reputation and de-platforming is frequently used to this effect.

Naturally, the opprobrium attached to being an oppressor of marginalised groups, or the mere threat of being so labelled, is often enough to stifle criticism. Where this does not suffice, mere theory can be used to muddy definitions so as to tarnish reputations. For example, even though the language Greer uses to speak about transgender people is often needlessly cruel, she has repeatedly emphasised that she has no desire to harm or interfere with transgender people. However, the “trans community,” as conceived by activists, includes both trans people and the tenets of gender theory. Any antagonism—from the murder of trans people to polite disagreement with those tenets—is simply classed as transphobic oppression, different only in degree. The absurdity of all this should be obvious—Helen Lewis has observed that the men who rape and kill transgender women are likely not over-familiar with the works of Germaine Greer. Nevertheless, activists insist on categorising Greer and others’ views alongside murderous violence, and university feminist societies claim trans-critical views “endanger trans women” to further justify de-platforming.

These theorists’ take on free-speech is thus a self-contained circle of self-justifying premises and boiler-plate rhetoric, foisted onto the public sphere through the organs of media, academe, and activism wherever the Left dominates. Far from standing against power, it depends upon it. The notion that group power imbalances must be accounted for with censorship if speech is to be truly free (including censorship of those critical of this idea) is a demand that all the radical Left’s substantive claims about social groups and their interests be agreed to before public discourse even begins. The theorists are as blind to their biases and presuppositions as any they accuse—they just disguise their own as objective social analysis which is then placed above discussion. The radical Left will not countenance discussion without first insisting on their proposed group interests as self-evident.

The task before liberals is to make them do so. Because when these claims are interrogated like any other, they are quickly found to be groundless. The feminists who denounced and tried to censor pornography failed to meet their own criteria of the margins speaking to power. They were comfortably ensconced within academia and worked in tandem with the political clout of the religious Right—far from speaking from the female margins to male power, they were nearer the centres of established power than the pornographers they attacked.

The communities that leftists claim to protect are plainly dubious. The “trans community” as conceived by the radical Left is packed with assumptions that have no obvious connection to the interests of transgender people. Indeed, denials of binary gender and biological sex differences appear to contradict the whole enterprise of changing physically from one gender to the other, and insistence on affirmation of gender self-identification in toddlers undermines support for the cautious medical treatment of young trans adults. Such notions, presented as the stakes upon which transgender well-being rest, are actually the underpinnings of radical gender theory. Gender theory created this “trans community” to advance itself, rather than the other way around. The claim that speech from the marginalised will follow the silencing of the oppressor and produce a net gain in speech overall, fails. Greer has been persona non grata on most campuses for some time now, yet the “trans community” has made no great contribution to campus discussion—and won’t, because it only exists in theory.

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I hope to avoid familiar stereotypes of postmodernist, leftist academia. Feminist scholarship generally has rejected the universal “women’s experience.” Further, postmodernist philosophers’ politics were more complicated than often thought, and their insights into language and power were more nuanced than is often appreciated. However, many on the radical Left who are taken with their ideas have failed to apply postmodernism’s scepticism to their own newly acquired political certainties. Instead, they clumsily use theories of power and language in the service of their own unexamined agenda. Activists, second-rate academics, and left-leaning journalists distinguished more by their peculiar political tradition than any characteristic like sex or race, presume to censor on behalf of victim groups.

It is a common human failing to presume that one’s own perspective is wholly correct, and that those who disagree are either ignorant or malevolent. However, granting the victim perspective indisputable moral authority whilst placing oneself within it justifies (indeed mandates) this tendency without restraint. The results are almost comic. Left-wing men can berate women into silence, whilst sincerely imagining themselves to be champions of women’s speech. And academics can confidently announce that the millions of women who differ from them are in the grip of false consciousness, blind to their true perspective. They openly affirm their desire to silence their opponents, even questioning legal protections on speech. This does not a remedy for polarisation make.

Worryingly, this approach to speech seems to be spreading beyond the radical Left. A defender of Greer in the Spectator decries the silencing of “women” by trans activists. That most opponents of “gender critical” feminists have been young (born) women would appear to complicate this. They would have more success arguing that a particular group with contestable but legitimate views on the transgender matter are being silenced by a poorly-conceived theory of the activist clique, than in pitting social groups against each other. But even right-leaning publications seem to write about free speech in terms of competing groups.

Activists are naive to think that they can impartially censor oppressive speech to correct for historical oppression. Their conception of oppression is warped by the biases of their particular political tradition, and they inevitably end up simply censoring people they simply dislike, most often those less powerful than themselves. It is better (or, more accurately, less worse) to let individuals speak as freely as possible, and not get boxed into groups controlled by the purportedly enlightened few. Of course, the perspectives and pre-existing narratives we adopt can still control us, even when we speak freely. But it’s a form of control many steps removed from, and far preferable to, giving a direct veto to mediocre academics, activists, and left-leaning journalists.

If those who value free speech hope to convince the public of its enduring value, they would do well to more directly confront the poorly conceived theory behind progressive critiques, and the cynical abuse of public goodwill toward the vulnerable in society.


The author has a BA in History from the University of York. You can follow her on Twitter at @lottashelton. Charlotte Shelton is a pseudonym.


1 Harding, Sandra G. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell U, 1986. Print. pg 26
2 Harding, Sandra G. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell U, 1986. Print. pg 26
3 Harding, Sandra G. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell U, 1986. Print. pg 25