Image by BogdanV

Burn the book!

In which activists protest against the publication of a book they know little about

Artillery Row

“I don’t know too much about the book or the event, except the fact that many people who are in the gender studies and are well-educated, and queer studies have condemned the contents of the book; I trust their condemnation.”

So said a member of the University of Edinburgh’s academic staff when interviewed by a student journalist at a protest on the university campus last week. He was protesting the launch of Sex and Gender: a contemporary reader. Edited by Professor Alice Sullivan and Professor Selina Todd, it is published by one of the world’s largest and most prestigious academic publishers. Guests to the university were forced to clamber across protestors who not only sat in front of the barriers and refused to move, but grabbed guests’ ankles and legs to try to stop them reaching the venue, whilst chanting “Shame on you” and “Go home”. In one incident, the member of staff quoted above appeared to thrust his groin in front of a gap in the barrier, in what looked like an attempt to stop an older woman, escorted by security guards, from reaching the venue. Other protestors laughed and chanted as she picked her way through the jeering crowd and past a sign saying “FUCK TERFS”. The member of staff would later post accusations on Twitter/X that he’d been kicked, pushed, trodden on and shouted at, along with other accusations for which no evidence seems to exist.

I have since been made aware of several ticket-holders who turned back from the event rather than run the gauntlet of the protest. Eventually, an alternative access route via an adjacent building was set up, and the remaining guests — mostly women — were escorted in.

It should be unthinkable that the launch of an academic book in a university would require a major security operation, involving the university’s own highly professional security team, a private firm and the police. Sadly, for those of us organising and participating in the event, such a thing was only too predictable. Last academic year, Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom, a group of which I am proud to be a founder member, tried twice to host a screening and discussion of the film Adult Human Female. On both occasions, the screening was prevented by a small number of individuals who blockaded lecture theatres and venue entrances, cheered on by larger numbers of supposedly peaceful protestors — though the extent to which a protest can be described as “peaceful” when it includes sexist and ageist chanting and offensive placards is surely debatable. Without the slick security operation, for which I am very grateful, I am in no doubt that last Wednesday’s book launch would also have been sabotaged.

These protests and attempts to shut down events do not happen in a vacuum. For starters, they happen in a wider context of attempts to stop women meeting and discussing their rights. The day after our event, for instance, activists attempted to stop the Filia conference, described as the largest grassroots feminist gathering in Europe, using the now-familiar tactic of pressuring the venue to cancel the booking. Legal intervention meant the booking was reinstated, but women arriving in Glasgow from all over the world were met at the start of the event with barracking from trans rights activists who appeared to know little or nothing of what the conference was about.

The self-appointed censors’ tactic of choice seems to be mass emails

That wider context tells only part of the story. At the University of Edinburgh (as at other universities), pressure to withdraw venues does not and cannot succeed, because universities have statutory obligations to uphold academic freedom and freedom of expression. These obligations pre-date the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, and they are relevant in Scotland even though the recent legislation does not apply here. Attempts to cancel events at the University of Edinburgh take a different form. When calls on management to withdraw venues do not succeed, the self-appointed censors’ tactic of choice seems to be mass emails. Last year, the university’s Staff Pride Network used its mailing list of what I believe is 600+ members (staff and research students) to level knee-jerk accusations of transphobia at Adult Human Female and at the organisers of the screening. Those 600+ colleagues received, directly into their inboxes, hyperbolic (if undefined and unevidenced) claims as to the harms that would be done to trans students and their colleagues should the screening and discussion be allowed to happen. These emails were part of creating a climate in which the events could not safely go ahead.

This time, it was the Edinburgh branch of the University and College Union (UCUE) that deployed its email list. More than 3,000 UCUE members (according to UCUE figures) received an email referring to “the launch of a transphobic book on campus on October 11th”. The mass email directed members to an attached letter, previously sent to university managers, demanding that the event be cancelled. The letter was thin on detail about the book, most probably because no one on the UCUE committee had read it. Instead, it referred to the Adult Human Female film, making patently untrue claims. In one example, the UCUE committee said:

… it [Adult Human Female] also includes Shereen Benjamin who continually uses the strategy of framing trans people and their rights as “gender ideology,” with the fait accompli that trans people’s existence — like any ideology or theory — can be “debunked.”

This word salad is as nonsensical as it sounds. As I have said in many places, including in Adult Human Female, I think people who identify as transgender should and do have the right to live, work and study free from harassment and discrimination. I have also said in many places that universities are both legally and morally obliged to uphold these rights. Yet 3,000 of my colleagues have been told that I want to “debunk” people’s existence, as if that were a thing that could be done. I asked university management to require an apology and correction to be sent as soon as possible, regarding this and other falsehoods, distortions and smears in the letter. I also asked the UCUE committee directly. No such correction was issued. Instead, UCUE sent a further mass email, on the day of the launch, calling on members to protest the book, whose authorship they described as “a who’s who of transphobes in academia … known for their violently anti-trans rhetoric”.

The climate of self-censorship means important research is not undertaken

Of the 3,000+ UCUE members who received these emails, it seems that only a very small minority were so incensed by the descriptions of the hateful book and its hateful authors, and so willing to outsource their thinking, that they actually turned up to protest. That small number should have been zero. It is (or should be) shocking that any university employee or student would seek to prevent people discussing a book without having made even the most superficial effort to find out what the book is about. It should be equally shocking that a university would allow its IT infrastructure to be used to spread inflammatory and untrue allegations, which are clearly intended to stop colleagues from organising events of which a few censorious individuals disapprove. It is of small comfort to me that only a tiny fraction of the recipients of the email participated in the protest: 3,000+ of my colleagues have been told damaging lies about me, and I have had no right of reply. Each time one of these circular emails goes without comment, the environment on campus gets that bit worse, that bit more censorious.

That matters far beyond public engagement events, such as the book launch and the screening and discussion of Adult Human Female. The climate of self-censorship means that not only do events not get organised, but important research is not undertaken. Teaching follows what is perceived to be the approved line, because staff and students are afraid of being similarly targeted. This is the opposite of what universities are supposed to be.

Despite the intimidating protest, and thanks to the tireless work of our security colleagues, the launch of Sex and Gender: a contemporary reader went ahead. Inside the venue there was careful, compassionate, fact-based discussion of a host of important social issues. It is a pity that the protestors remained outside. If they had left their prejudices at the barriers and come inside to join the discussion, they would likely have been surprised by what they heard. They might well have learned something.

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