You are oppressing us! - Sara Ahmed

'Sshh' clip art
'Sshh' clip art

Sara Ahmed on supposed 'censorship'.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on February 15, 2015

Those who are oppressed – who have to struggle to exist often by virtue of being a member of a group – are often judged as the oppressors. We only have to turn the pages of feminist history to know this. When lesbians demanded entry into feminist spaces, we were called a “lavender menace.” We got in the way of the project of making feminism more acceptable. To be rendered unacceptable is often to be treated as the ones with the power (the power to take something away). I recently heard a heterosexual feminist speak of lesbians in feminism in exactly these terms: as wielding all the power. When black women and women of colour spoke of racism in feminism we were heard, we are heard, as angry, mean and spiteful, as hurting white women’s feelings. The angry woman of colour is not only a feminist killjoy she is often a killer of feminist joy. She gets in the way of how white women occupy feminism.

This is a difficult history.

History happens; it happens again.

Yesterday a letter was published in The Guardian that basically suggests that feminists are being silenced within universities. This might sound like a letter I would support. I am a feminist, and I willfully refuse to be silenced, although nor do I assume I have some sort of right or automatic entitlement to speak.

However this letter works to create false impressions implying that critical feminists are being silenced and oppressed by some (relatively) unspecified others. We need to specify who these others are. The politics of the letter is about the politics of this who.

Specific cases are mentioned in the letter as evidence of the silencing of feminists. The first case mentioned is that of Kate Smurthwaite whose comedy show was cancelled by the Student’s Union at Goldsmiths. This cancellation is then described as part of “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed ‘transphobic’ or ‘whorephobic.'” The accusations are strong: these cases are collectively identified as “attempts at intimidation” and as “bullying.” The basic claim is that no platforming is being used to silence critical feminist voices. So rather than no platforming being used as a response to fascism “today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists.”

The letter contains much false information. I want to understand why this is the case; I want to understand how such a letter could be signed and published. Of the three cases mentioned only one was actually about “no platforming” (Julie Bindel) and even then the no platform policy is falsely attributed to the National Union of Students.

Just take the first case. Kate Smurthwaite was not censored from speaking at Goldsmiths because of her views on sex work. She was certainly not “no platformed” by Goldsmiths Feminist Society, which did hold a vote about whether to co-host this event with the Goldsmiths Comedy Society (the vote was not even about moving or cancelling the event). The eventual cancelling of the event seems to be as much a result of the performer perceiving that protests and pickets were likely – rather than protests or threat of pickets (only one tweet has been found which mentioned pickets, and that was not from a student at Goldsmiths). The organiser of this event gives us a full account of the messiness of this cancellation here.

So what is going on then? What is noticeable of course is how quickly the story of the feminist comedian being censored for her critical views gets picked up and circulated by the media, and even ends up as a “truth statement” within this letter. What do we learn from this quick circulation? Quite a lot I would say. There is an investment here: I would call this a narrative investment. There is a desire for evidence “that feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists are being censored.” As such the explanation of the cancellation seems to be in the end what the cancellation was about: the desire for more evidence of the stifling of debate and the censoring of some critical feminist views. These views then get expressed again as if they are being stifled. They get repeated by being presented as prohibited.

Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction; you are witnessing a mechanism of power. I often describe diversity work as mechanical work. We know a lot about the mechanisms of power when we try to transform the norms embedded in a situation. The power of some to determine the discourse is often upheld by being concealed or denied. We need as feminists to offer some counter explanations of what is going on than the explanations offered by this letter. The narrative of “being silenced” has become a mechanism for enabling and distributing some forms of expression. Indeed I would even argue that the narrative of being silenced from speaking has become an incitement to speak: it incites the very thing it claims is being stopped.

If there is a desire to accumulate evidence of one’s own views being prohibited or not heard, what would the desire be doing? One might think of Cathy Newman’s recent tweets about not being allowed into a mosque because she was a woman. Turns out she was in the wrong place. Why did she tell this version of events? A version can be told quickly when that version is to hand or handy. What happened could be treated as evidence that she was excluded as a woman becomes that viewpoint is perpetually recited and is thus in circulation: that Islam is sexist; that Islam is bad for women; that Muslim women need to be saved by non-Muslim women. I would call this viewpoint racism. I am always willing to give problems their names! Here the desire is not only for evidence of exclusion (for who one is, what one says) but for evidence that can support an explanation: they are sexists. Look!

This look is really: Look at me!

Look, look!

Note how the understandably strong reactions to Cathy Newman’s racist rant are then described by another non-Muslim feminist Louise Mensch as “trolling.” She now reappears as a white woman victim (that the white woman can go so quickly from saviour to victim is often how she keeps her place). When narratives are firmly in place, and things happen, these happenings can be used to confirm that narrative (often regardless of what happened).

Look, look!

Sometimes a desire for evidence to confirm a belief that is already held can lead to forms of provocation and intimidation in order to generate that evidence. More and more offensive speech acts will be articulated because there is desire for the offence to be caused; a desire for evidence that the other’s offendability has restricted “our freedom.” I explored how, for example, much Islamaphobia rests on the circulation of the figure of the “easily offendable Muslim” in my 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness. That figure is doing so much work; that figure allows racist speech to be articulated not only as free speech but as rebellious and minority speech that has to be defended in order to be articulated. This is why the myth of the “political correct majority” remains so generative: those who object to such-and-such view (a view that is often about the socially dominant exercising their dominance through verbal assaults) are treated as a silencing majority, wielding power with pens.

Back to the letter.

This is why the letter rests on flimsy material. The letter lacks evidence because it is assembled around a desire for evidence that is lacking. This letter gives evidence to this desire rather than giving us evidence. The example of Germaine Greer would be another case in point: she was not stopped from speaking at all. She spoke, as so did trans feminists activists at another event organised by LGBT+ Society and the Women’s Society with transfeminist speakers including Roz Kaveney and Sarah Brown (please see this important contribution by Sarah Brown which reflects on this case and offers a powerful critique of the letter). If anything what we have evidence of here is student protests leading to the proliferation rather than prevention of discourse. The very material used as evidence in the letter of a stifling of critical feminist views suggests instead a lively critical dissenting feminist student population. Lively dissenting feminist student voices are certainly what I hear when I listen to the students at Goldsmiths. I am so encouraged by their voices!

I think there is more going on. The letter is noticeably vague about the views it represents as being silenced or censored. I want to concentrate on the implications that feminists who are critical of “some demands made by trans activists” are being silenced. Note that the letter has already used the expression “transphobia” in a way that implies this accusation of “transphobia” is a means by which feminist views are being stifled. Put the sentences together and you have the picture: feminists who are critical of some of the demands of trans activists (which demands? One wonders) are accused of transphobia, which is how they are silenced.

I have since read a feminist defence of this letter which states that the accusation of transphobia is being used unfairly to dismiss the work of the feminists named in the letter (and is itself evidence that those who make the accusation have not read their work). I find this accusation that this accusation is false quite startling in relation to one person in particular. I stopped reading the comments made on social media by this person some time ago after she made repeated remarks about “trannies.” I did not want to keep encountering this language; I experienced it as “hammering.” If I as a cis woman experienced her words as hammering, I can only imagine how trans people who read these words must feel. This is the same person who described a transwoman as a “man in a dress.”

Now you might think: free speech is freedom to be offensive. You might think: speech should be protected unless it is an incitement to violence. What or who are we protecting? Again, one wonders.

I would argue that anti-trans stances and statements of some so-called “critical feminists” including some of those named in the letter should not be understood as feminism. I consider this work deeply anti-feminist as well as anti-trans. I have read some of this material as I am working on Living a Feminist Life, and despite what I knew already, I have been quite shocked by what I have encountered (I am not going to cite this work in my book, nor here, because I refuse to legitimate that work).

For me, being a feminist at work is also about what or who we do not cite, recite or incite.

No citation can be a feminist policy!

When I put on twitter that I consider some of this feminist material as “an incitement to violence” I was sent screenshots of tweets, which were being sent to me as evidence that trans activists are violent or incite violence against TERFS (trans exclusionary radical feminists). When I blocked some of these senders, it was taken as evidence that I was “not a feminist.” Now, politics is rarely about one good and one bad side; nor about innocence on one side and guilt on the other. But politics is also messy because power is asymmetrical. Challenging TERFS is about challenging a position not an identity. TERF describes a position. The term is not a slur: it is a pretty fair and mild description of some feminists who aim to exclude trans people from feminism. There are many radical feminists, both now and in the past, who would understand trans inclusion as a radical and necessary feminist practice. Any TERF can thus unbecome one. This unbecoming would be a feminist becoming! Please I extend this to you as an invitation! I do think we might as feminists be aiming to eliminate the positions that aim to eliminate people. Challenging TERFS is not the same kind of speech act as misgendering a transwoman by addressing her as him, an act I would describe as an intentional act of elimination.

I am not saying there have not been problematic ways of addressing the problem of exclusion by trans activists and their allies. But the desire for evidence itself, as I have already noted, can have a role in generating evidence. And I know (speaking from my own experience as a lesbian feminist of colour) that to address the problem of exclusion within feminism often means becoming the problem. Becoming the problem unsurprisingly, I would say, can lead to the use of some problematic language (it can be very frustrating, to put it mildly, too mildly, to have your very existence challenged in the spaces you seek out because in the wider world your very existence is challenged!).

Let’s get back to my point: when the letter says that critical feminists are being silenced, it is implied “being critical” of the demands of trans activists should be a legitimate feminist speech. I think what is under-described or miss-described here is the nature of some of that speech. At a feminist march a pamphlet was distributed by trans exclusionary radical feminists that I would described as a vile form of hate speech: it basically accused transwomen of being murderers and rapists. When I spoke of my own outrage about these pamphlets, one of the people named in the letter said something like, “so are you saying that it is as bad as the Holocaust.” It would take me a long time to unpack what it is wrong with this statement. But just note the implication; that violence against trans people is “relatively” minor, a footnote in a horrifying history of racial hatred.

How often: some forms of violence are understood as trivial or not even as violence at all. How often: violence is reproduced by not being seen as violence. So much violence directed against groups (that is directed against individuals as perceived members of a group) often works by locating that violence within those groups. Thus minorities are often deemed as being violent, or as causing violence, or even as causing the violence directed against them. To give an account of trans people as causing violence is to cause violence against trans people. We are most certainly talking about lives and deaths here; and we are most certainly talking about incitement to violence.

Let’s go back to this letter. This letter implies that some feminist statements that should be expressed freely, that what need to enable debate and dialogue as the sign of a healthy lively democracy. But transphobia and anti-trans statements should not be treated as just another viewpoint that we should be free to express at a happy diversity table. There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table. When you have “dialogue or debate” with those who wish to eliminate you from the conversation (because they do not recognise what is necessary for your survival or because they don’t even think your existence is possible), then “dialogue and debate” becomes another technique of elimination. A refusal to have some dialogues and some debates can thus be a key tactic for survival.

The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. Sadly, this letter is evidence that the mechanism is working. These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti-racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. We can hear resonance without assuming analogy. We need to hear the constant stream of anti-trans statements as a “chip, chip, chip” that has violent wearing effects. Any feminism that participates in this chipping away is not a feminism worthy of that name.

Of course people protested against this letter. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But this will happen quickly (remember narratives “pick up” on things that happen by explaining that happening in terms that are already in placed before things happen): those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.

Look, look!

And note too: protesting about the misuse of the discourse of free speech will not be judged as evidence of free speech! When people express anger and rage, that anger and rage will be heard as a political weapon. I expect people will hear that anger not as an invitation to reflect on what is wrong with what they have signed up to but as a yet another confirmation that they are wronged.

When some people exercise their freedom of speech by protesting against some speech that freedom of speech is understood as oppressive.

Free speech has thus become a political technology that is used to redefine freedom around the right of some to occupy time and space. It is “the others” who become the oppressors; those who in speaking of a wrong are judged as speaking wrong.

We need to say it: this is wrong.

Originally posted at Feminist Killjoys.