I would like to make a couple points about Milan Rai’s editorial and Helen Steel’s article in response to the events at the London Anarchist Bookfair in October (PN 2612–2613). They concern the appropriateness of the right to free speech when it is applied to who someone is, as opposed to what someone choses to think or to be.
Firstly, both authors address the issue from the perspective of defending free speech. But there is a difference between free speech as it relates to competing ideologies (what we chose to think) and as it relates to us at a fundamental human level (who we are). Rai’s position is extrapolated from his earlier case that communist denials of free speech to fascists in the 1930s actually served to facilitate the rise of Hitler (PN 2610 - 2611).
Communism and fascism are ideologies in conflict. Surely free speech is not an absolute right where it involves the denigration and dehumanisation of people not on the basis of their ideology, but of who they are (for example, Jews, in Rai’s context). He says, ‘Freedom of speech is deeply connected to freedom of thought. Most of us discover what we really think by talking with others, by expressing ourselves, and then hearing other people’s responses. Everyone should have the chance to find their own political truths, to make mistakes, to grow and to stand on their own feet intellectually’. But insert the denial of basic human rights to specified racial groups as the ‘political truth’ to be contested, so that they may take the opportunity to ‘grow and to stand on their own feet intellectually’, and you can see the problem.
Rai and Steel both similarly miss the point about free speech in relation to transgender struggles. They are implicitly equating being transgender with having an ideology, so that what is up for debate is reduced to an abstract ‘political truth’. To be a transgender person is not to hold a ‘political truth’ (although of course this may follow, depending on the wider conclusions they may draw from the way they are treated).
Gender is not something you adopt or abandon because you feel like it, but a state of being. It is therefore not legitimate ‘free speech’ to spread ideological propaganda against transpeople, such as the leaflet handed out by TERFs [‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ – ed] at the Bookfair, but an act of ‘hate speech’ (and, cf PN’s ‘we’re not saying the leaflets were hate speech’, this was propaganda of the most vile, dehumanising nature, and it makes me wonder whether Rai has actually read it). So the status of free speech as a denial of who someone is, rather than what they choose to believe, is at the heart of the issue.
My second, related point, concerns what Steel’s article leaves unsaid. She is surely consciously aware, that when she refers to the denial of ‘women’s experiences’, the silencing of ‘women’s voices’, the need for ‘women-only meeting spaces’, and observes that ‘women are subject to oppression, sexual violence and harassment on the basis of our sex’, she is acting on an assumption that the reader is going along with her definition of who ‘those born female’ refers to.
This deliberate obfuscation applies to the Bookfair leaflet as well. Either transwomen are women, or they aren’t. Her appeal for ‘free speech’ is actually an assertion that they are not. This is an ideological position – a political truth – not a fact. Even the more typically reactionary institutions of state are gradually abandoning it, which is what makes the Gender Recognition Act so pivotal for all concerned. HS makes a choice, not to believe that trans people are who they say they are.
Dressing up hate speech as ‘free speech’ is a deliberately clever angle being worked by ‘TERFs’ because of the legal implications. Hate speech is legally recognisable and punishable, but free speech is a generally progressive cause defended by ‘right-minded’ people (as well as by Jo Johnson). But free speech is misapplied if it includes asserting that trans-rights equate to ‘rape culture’ (which the leaflet does). PN readers are put in danger of missing the fact that transgender rights is one of the great human rights issue of our generation. When the struggle is won, which side will we have taken?
(I am a white, cis-gendered anarcha-feminist of Steel’s generation, a one-time PN volunteer and long-time member of the Anarchist Federation)