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Artillery Row

The awkward truth about sex and free speech

More women should realise that “inclusivity” should not come before freedom

Months ago, I had a miserable “eureka” moment. I was an aspiring writer who’d quietly exiled myself from most of my writing circles due to the bullying pressure to support extremist left-wing politics or risk a whispering campaign. Even staying mute was treated as suspect. 

Studies have consistently shown a notable sex difference in attitudes towards free speech and the freedom to offend

The most subtle defence of freedom of speech for those you disagreed with could generate accusations of enabling “hate”. Having spent my twenties either studying or working in support staff roles in universities — a world I also self-exiled from due to the suffocating hive-mindery — I reflected on what the worst sectors for such “#bekind” bullying and pressure to conform were; where you most likely risked ostracism if you dissented: academia, publishing, the arts, the charity sector, education, clinical psychology. I had a depressing suspicion what a common denominator might be and sadly it proved right. These are all sectors dominated by women.

Studies have consistently shown a notable sex difference in attitudes towards free speech and the freedom to offend, such as in this study by American social scientist Cory Clark. This particular survey was conducted by the US-based Knight Foundation and specifically pertained to university campuses. As this study by King’s College London shows though, there are very similar sex disparities more broadly, with women on average showing more sympathy for the importance of “sensitive” language over free speech that may offend. 

Before I go any further here, there are three important things to highlight. The first is that these sex disparities, while notable, are not overwhelming. Stats may indicate that a minority of women favour freedom of speech over prioritising “inclusivity” and sensitivity and vice versa for men but they are large minorities (the aforementioned female-dominated sectors have plenty of males who’ll support authoritarian speech policy for the sake of “progressivism”). There is more of a spectrum than a dichotomy here. The second thing is that caring about inclusivity and sensitive language is, in case it needs said, a very positive trait. In many circumstances it can and should be prioritised (when working with children, for instance, and trying to encourage their development and discourage bullying). The fact that women are — again, on average — more egalitarian, more considerate of people’s feelings and more diplomatic (or agreeable, as it’s often said) can be strengths, as is the masculine tendency towards clear hierarchy, meritocracy and prioritising tasks over relationships. All virtues taken to the extreme become detrimental or harmful and problems only arise when the pendulum swings too far. In harmony, these traits can (and have) accomplished tremendous things. The third point is that the two values — freedom of speech and inclusivity (or kindness) need not be antagonists. In Clark’s study, the men and women who prioritised free speech over “promoting inclusivity” are highly unlikely to be against the latter. They simply identified that the freedom to offend has to come first to preserve liberal democracy and the pursuit of truth in a university environment .

But university environments, as is patently evident to all but the most insulated and echo chamber-bound, are not committing enough to this principle. Nor are other places where freedom to offend must take precedence over subjective feelings, such the arts and the press. Take the pompously named Global Disinformation Index (GDI), which “[advises] policymakers and business leaders about how to combat disinformation”. The GDI’s definition of what constitutes “disinformation” is extremely dubious. The head of the organisation, Claire Metford has stated:

A lot of disinformation is not just whether something is true or false — it escapes from the limits of fact-checking. Something can be factually accurate but still extremely harmful…

The tell-tale misguided safetyism behind the GDI’s ethos moved me to look up the organisation’s website, which very helpfully shows a breakdown of employee demographics. Again, certain unfortunate correlations stand:


Picture credit: The Global Disinformation Index’s website https://www.disinformationindex.org/about

The second pie chart is relevant as it shows another important factor propagating well-intentioned censorship: age. As The KCL study shows, there are other demographic factors in the “free speech” versus “be kind” divide; attitudes also differ between Pro-Brexit and Pro-remain voters, Conservative party and Labour Party supporters and age groups. It is being increasingly observed that coercive progressivism, to steal journalist Stephen Daisley’s phrase, is particularly attractive to Gen-Z and millennial age women for reasons largely to do with misplaced ideas of kindness and defending the vulnerable modern culture has weaned them on.

This is a phenomenon where the chicken arguably came before the egg. It is not the fault of millennial/Gen-Z women that they (we) came of age or were brought up from birth in a time of wildly confusing sexual politics and social media, which as has been well-observed, is a particularly seductive and destructive tool for young women, and enables social dynamics that encourage psychological bullying and character assassination; the style of bullying women are most susceptible to (although, again, by no means exclusively). If elite workplaces (such as academia and publishing) are not only permitting but rewarding progressive hivemindery, it makes sense they are following the incentives.

The impact that the “feminisation” of cultural institutions is having on attitudes to free speech and rise in paranoia about often ill-defined “hate speech” remains a cautiously sidelined subject in moderate-lefty circles. It has been boldly brought to light by some young female commentators such as Freya India and Louise Perry (Perry has also interviewed Cory Clark in depth on her podcast) but overall, it remains a something of an elephant in the room outwith highly conservative circles or the Manosphere (believe me, they’re talking about it). It’s understandable why it’s being avoided. I know from experience shining light on any rift or heated debates within feminism will bring certain men flocking in glee, rubbing their hands because “Lolz, the feminazi’s are eating their own.” Nonetheless, uncomfortable realities should not be avoided because idiots might hijack and twist it into support for their own regressive agenda. When difficult and complex problems leave a void, it is only more likely to get filled by very loud and dangerous voices, rather than nuanced, constructive ones.

There is a very strong feminist case for women taking this issue by the tusks. It’s been enthusiastically (and correctly) observed that women have been disproportionately persecuted for pushing back against coercive progressivism in cultural institutions. The reticence at acknowledging our sex has spearheaded much of the persecution and, more pertinently, understanding why, must be overcome. There is no shortage of freethinking, intellectually resilient and pro-freedom of speech women who are either suppressing themselves or self-excluding from cultural institutions that in a healthy climate, they would be flourishing in and leading for the better. The most competent and clever women can and have at times been hounded out of academia, the arts and journalism by overgrown mean girls leading smear campaigns. Not to mention, they are being leap-frogged by comparatively mediocre people who parrot the “right” views, to the detriment of all of us. If tackling this poison in modern cultural institutions means some deeply uncomfortable reckonings about certain aspects of female social behaviour, then it is worth it.

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