Monday, 9 November 2015

Free publicity, and Free Speech

I was pleased to see Cardiff University getting international media attention recently. Not because of our incredible research and teaching, of course. Don't be silly. It was a minor kerfuffle over Germaine Greer.

For those unaware, Germaine Greer is an Australian academic who became famous as a hard-fighting feminist with her 1970 book The Female Eunuch. Since then her career in controversy has ranged across many topics. Of late, outraged attention has focussed on her view that men who undergo surgery to become women are, in fact, still men.

What does that have to do with Cardiff?

Greer was invited here to give this year's Haydn Ellis Distinguished Lecture. In response, the Cardiff University Students' Union Women's Officer started a petition on change.org requesting that the university cancel the event, on account of Greer's history of "transphobic views". The petition had attracted on the order of 100 signatories when it was picked up by local media, and the story took off. The university responded that it would not cancel the lecture, and by the time the story had reached the New York Times, the headline was, "Cardiff University Rejects Bid to Bar Germaine Greer", and the number of signatories was approaching 1000. A counter-petition was also launched. At the time of this writing both petitions are pretty much neck-and-neck with close to 3000 signatories.

I'd call that a win for the university. I expected a tweet from the public relations office, "Vice Chancellor quoted in New York Times", but maybe they were all preoccupied quaffing champagne.

Greer, for her part, immediately became conciliatory. She appeared on television and diplomatically explained her position, "Just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman." To anyone who felt insulted by her views, she appeared on BBC's Newsnight to gently explain that they should man up [1]. She also delivered the rather plaintive remark, "People get insulted all the time. Australians get insulted every day of the week!"

Needless to say, the publicity increased.

It was difficult to follow what was going on. There were reports that the lecture was cancelled, but these appeared to be based solely on Greer's statement at the end of the Newsnight interview that she didn't want to come to Cardiff to have things thrown at her. "I'm getting too old for all this," she said. "Bugger it!" As far as the ever-vigilant media were concerned, this was as good as a formal cancellation. Several weeks later Wales Online triumphantly reported the scoop story, "Germaine Greer's controversial lecture at Cardiff University is still on". It was never off.

Social media were awash with cries that British universities are overrun with political correctness, and free speech is dead. Hardly. Someone started a petition to have the lecture cancelled (which they were free to do); the university rejected the petition (as they were also free do to); and many people got to argue online (ditto). Isn't that how free speech is supposed to work?

This outcome is fine with me. I doubt there was much risk that the lecture would be cancelled. If it were I would have been appalled. Germaine Greer is a smart cookie, and even what seem like her most obviously repellent views -- could there be a more perfect example than her apparent support for female genital mutilation? -- raise questions that are worthy of debate [2]. Indeed, intelligent debate would be far more useful than blustering denunciations. It doesn't take much to identify the vast difference between Germaine Greer and, say, the holocaust denier David Irving.

For the record, I would think twice before banning David Irving as well. If he were invited here I hope there would be mammoth opposition, and I hope that some of the time that opposition would win. But not every time. I would be most reassured that free speech is alive and well if occasionally he were allowed to lecture or debate, as he was at the Oxford Union in 2007. Good for them! In that case the event was disrupted by protesters. Good for them, too! (Less cheers for the security on the door -- they failed.) [3]

I witnessed my ideal of free speech many years ago in New York City. It was six months after the attacks on the World Trade Centre. One morning I visited St Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. When I got there a service had just finished and people were streaming out. Across the road there was a small protest. The most sympathetic description would be to say that it was against church protection of pedophile priests. Normally that would be a protest I could support. But the protesters were radical evangelicals who believed that the 9/11 attacks were the wrathful revenge of God. There were banners with photos of the Twin Towers in flame and the slogan, "Thank God for 9/11!" I couldn't believe it. This was in New York City, only six months after 3000 people had died on that day.

There were about 20 protesters. They were surrounded by a metal fence, and easily outnumbered by the crowd of police officers who were standing outside the fence, protecting them from enraged members of the general public. Now that's what I call supporting free speech! How many of those police officers lost friends and colleagues when the South Tower collapsed on them? How many cursed and spat when told what sort of hateful shits they had to go out and protect this morning? They did it anyway -- or the City demanded they do it -- and all because people should have the right to air their views, no matter how despicable they may be.

The only thing I found more heartwarming than this motley tableaux, was the old fellow who emerged from the Cathedral and took one look across Fifth Avenue and chortled, "Thank God for 9/11? That's a bit much, isn't it?", and continued on his business.

I don't think that a university should be quite as welcoming a venue as a NYC sidewalk, but I submit it as a worthy ideal to keep in mind when the next attempt at "no-platforming" goes viral on social media.

In case you're wondering, I will not be attending Greer's lecture. I will instead be showing my unwavering support for Nothing.


Footnotes

1. Ok, she didn't use those exact words. But I bet she wishes she had.

2. For this view Greer activated the consternation of her old varsity buddy Clive James. And just last weekend he nicely undercut her extreme notions on sex changes, along with those people who tried to stop her lecture.

3. Regular readers may not be surprised to hear that none other than Errol Morris made an excellent film on Fred Leuchter, the source of one of the key pieces of Holocaust-denial "evidence".

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