This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Of the many aphorisms about free speech, surely the best known is that attributed to Voltaire: that although he might disapprove of what you say, he would defend to the death your right to say it. It is, of course, excellent — as far as it goes. Often, however, those who seek to silence other people’s speech object not to what they say, but how and where.
Consider Kellie-Jay Keen, aka Posie Parker, a women’s rights activist who holds rallies under the rubric Let Women Speak. She advertises a place and time, turns up with stewards in hi-viz jackets, and hands the mic to any woman with something to say. Some talk about men who identify as women using women’s toilets and changing rooms at workplaces and gyms, or muscling into women-only support groups for everything from addiction to the menopause.
One frequent speaker served a prison sentence locked up with a trans-identified man; another, a disabled woman, fears asking for a female carer only for a man who identifies as a woman to turn up. An increasingly common theme is schools colluding with gender-distressed children’s delusion that they can change sex.
In a sane world, what these women say wouldn’t attract criticism; indeed, it wouldn’t even need to be said. But often they are drowned out by transactivists shrieking threats and slogans of the sort Robert Jay Lifton, in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, called thought-terminating clichés: “brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases [that] become the start and finish of any ideological analysis”. “Trans women are women”. “Trans rights are human rights”. “Kill all terfs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists]”.
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Keen recently returned to the UK from a tour of Australia and New Zealand, which was aborted after a police no-show at a planned rally in Auckland. She was hemmed in and jostled, pelted with eggs and tomato soup and sprayed with liquid. Protesters picked up the metal barriers that were supposed to keep them back and brandished them as weapons.
Keen barely kept her footing as she was hustled away by private event stewards. Afterwards she tweeted: “I genuinely thought if I fell to the floor I would never get up again, my children would lose their mother and my husband would lose his wife.”
If anyone is supposed to be Voltaireishly assiduous in defending the lawful exercise of free speech, it’s the police. That they failed to do so in Auckland — and at some Let Women Speak rallies in the UK — can be blamed on the way Keen is smeared and dehumanised by the authorities.
Before her tour of Australia and New Zealand, she was vilified by politicians and in the press. Her “evil ideology is to scapegoat minorities”, said the premier of the Australian state of Victoria. “That woman and her views are abhorrent,” said New Zealand’s deputy prime minister. New Zealand Greens claimed she had a “longstanding track record of hateful speech and the incitement of violence”.
Describing Keen like this marks her as outside civilised society: an acceptable target for threats and violence. It outsources the dirty work of shutting her up to the bovver boys. Commentators, politicians and campaigners can say “I support free speech, but … ”, while maintaining (im)plausible deniability.
Trans lobby groups who tried to get a court order blocking Keen from New Zealand came up with a classic of the genre: “We are not opposing freedom of speech, we are opposing the measurable threat to public order and the safety of transgender people.”
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Pleasingly, the cowards who fail to defend other people’s free speech pretty quickly find their own tongues tied. New Zealand’s prime minister, Chris Hipkins, responded to the calls to bar Keen from the country by condemning “people who use their right to free speech in a way that seeks to deliberately create division”, but concluded that she wasn’t bad enough to be refused entry. That gave journalists a delightful new question he can expect to be asked until he either grows a spine or retires from politics.
In a recent press conference Hipkins was asked for his definition of “woman”. The journalist cited Keir Starmer, who has been dodging a straight answer to this question ever since replacing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2020. His latest formulation is that “99.9 per cent of women do not have penises.” Hipkins’s response was less ridiculous but no more candid: “Um … to be honest, that question has come slightly out of left field for me,” he said. (If that’s true, he should sack his policy advisers.) “Well, biology, sex, gender. Um … People define themselves, people define their own genders.”
The “What is a woman?” question is often dismissed as an attempt to stoke a culture war. In fact, it’s a serious policy issue — and a test of fitness for high office. If women are forbidden to say that men are men, however they identify, then any man can intrude on women-only spaces at will.
By claiming that some mysterious 0.01 per cent of women have penises, Sir Keir has picked a side — and it’s not standing with women who want to be able to assert boundaries. He’s just not brave enough to say so. Part of Keen’s genius is that she doesn’t just allow women to speak; she forces pusillanimous politicians to.
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Keen also provides frequent occasion for another type of “free speech, but …” argument: the one that goes “I support your right to speak, but only as long as you do so in the approved manner.” She is variously loved and loathed by other women’s rights campaigners. Depending on who you listen to, her colour-blocked clothes, bottle-blonde hair and bold sloganeering (she sells T-shirts proclaiming “Woman: Adult Human Female”) are either tasteless, tactless and self-aggrandising or brilliant marketing.
A Let Women Speak rally in Brighton last autumn sparked intra-feminist feuding that lasted for months. Some local feminists felt her in-your-face style would harm their attempts to build a rapprochement with Brighton’s wildly woke council (I suppose hell might one day freeze over). Others worried that the presence in the crowd of two members of far-right groupuscule Hearts of Oak would see the entire movement smeared as fascist (a link so tenuous that it’s “guilt by association” at one extra remove).
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If you zoom out, you’ll see that those who try to silence Keen would never be placated, no matter how much she tried to police her words. In March, the inaugural conference of the Lesbian Project, a think tank set up by journalist Julie Bindel and philosopher Kathleen Stock to advocate for same-sex attracted women, was disrupted by protesters who regard it as “transphobic” to think straight men who identify as women aren’t lesbians. Among them was Sarah Jane Barker, a trans-identified man who spent 30 years in jail for kidnapping, torture and attempted murder.
A few weeks later Riley Gaines, an American college swimmer who started campaigning against “trans inclusion” in women’s sports after competing against Lia Thomas, a man who identifies as a woman, gave a speech at San Francisco State University. Afterwards, undercover police had to barricade her in an office for her own safety while transactivists screamed “open the door, we want Riley” and “why are you protecting a white woman?”
Keen, Bindel, Stock and Gaines differ a lot in politics, language and style. And yet the same people want to silence all of them. To me, this suggests there isn’t any way women who believe sex is real, binary and salient can make that message palatable to transactivists, so there’s no point trying. And so I’d like to propose an expanded version of Voltaire: I may not agree with what you say but I defend to the death your right to say it, wherever, whenever and as loudly as you like, using whatever words come naturally to you.
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