No-Platforming: The Neo-Liberal Fascism by Victoria A. Brownworth

The University of Manchester Student Union thinks lesbian feminist writer and activist Julie Bindel is worse than ISIS.

If that sounds extreme, it is. Manchester SU could not come to a conclusion on whether or not ISIS, unarguably the world’s worst terror group, should be sanctioned by MSU, but they were unanimous that Bindel should be.

Take that in for a moment.

Manchester University’s Free Speech and Secular Society had asked Bindel to speak on a panel, “From liberation to censorship: does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?”

As they say in the courts: Asked and answered, as the head of the student union announced that Bindel would be banned from the event because her mere presence, like that of, say, ISIS, would “incite hatred,” and likely cause Manchester University students to become violent towards transgender students and trans people outside the university community.

According to MSU, Bindel’s mere presence would violate “safe space.” Forgetting that it was feminists like Bindel who created safe spaces specifically for women to be able to speak without threat of men.

Bindel’s link to terrorism and her subsequent no-platforming is a direct result of her controversial views on gender. Bindel, who has written for The Guardian and other publications, has written extensively that gender is a social construct that is bad for women, men, everyone. Within that context she has written–and this is an encapsulization, not a full representation of her work–that transgenderism is an extension of genderist ideology and is therefore mutilating men and women in service to 1950s-style binary stereotypical sex roles, rather than allowing people to be gender-non-conforming.

As co-founder of the feminist anti-violence group Justice for Women, Bindel has been no-platformed previously for speaking out on a range of gender issues. She is actually best known for her writing and speaking on sex trafficking of women and girls, for which she has also been no-platformed.

Invited to be on the panel with Bindel is Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor at the right-wing news magazine Breitbart. Yiannopoulos is also a men’s rights activist who has written extensively about the “fantasy” of rape culture and as recently as Oct.4 was a counter-demonstrator at a celebrity Slut Walk, carrying a sign comparing rape to the Harry Potter fantasy world of J.K. Rowling.

Yiannopoulos has also written that lesbian domestic violence is far more prevalent than male-female domestic violence and has written many blatantly misogynist, lesbophobic and transphobic columns.

As recently as Sept. 22, Yiannopoulos asserted on Twitter that “Maybe trans has nothing to do with any psychiatric disorder–it’s just second-class citizens (men) who want female privilege.”

Bindel is one of only a handful of speakers under a country-wide ban by the National Union of Students (NUS), a confederation of more than 600 student unions throughout the U.K. Also on the banned list: the terrorist group Al-Muhajiroun, the racist English Defence League, the British National Party, the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is dedicated to creating a global caliphate under global Sharia law and…Julie Bindel. Allegedly the NUS also has a no-platform policy for rape deniers and Holocaust deniers, but David Irving has spoken at several universities and of course Yiannopoulos, a rape denier, has not been no-platformed. George Galloway was no-platformed last year for asserting that Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange had been falsely accused of rape, but that ban was lifted.

So it’s just the most racist organization in England, Scotland and Wales, known for fomenting violence, two terrorist organizations, the racist nationalist BNP and Julie Bindel.

I’m not going to debate Bindel’s politics. That’s frankly not my concern. I disagree with her on several points, as I know she disagrees with me on those same points. Yet somehow I am able to disagree with Bindel and not only live in the same world as her, but I am also able to read her writings–and those of Yiannopoulos, for that matter, although I certainly don’t want to appear to compare Bindel with Yiannopoulos. I respect much of Bindel’s work; I respect none of Yiannopoulos’s.

I have taught college for more than 25 years, though I am currently on a health-related leave. I have deliberately put controversial topics before my students (in literature and film courses) in order to challenge them and their perspectives as well as to broaden their knowledge of the world. In freshman film classes I have shown D.W.Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” as well as Liliana Cavani’s “The Night Porter” and Lena Wertmuller’s “Swept Away.”

These are highly controversial and classic films dealing with issues of violent racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny. Each film demands that students think about how film has been used over the past century to manipulate viewers into particular perspectives on blacks, Jews and women. They demand that students separate the brilliance of the filmmaking from the messages being sent by those films.

I want my students to be thinkers. As a consequence I reject the entirety of the concept of no-platforming, which presumes that all students are tabula rasa and thus are incapable of resisting ideas that may in fact be racist or homophobic, misogynist or transphobic, anti-Semitic or Islamophobic. How do we get to the adult place of deconstructing ideas if we are kept in a bubble of same-note choirs?

I believe that no-platforming is neo-liberal fascism. This isn’t a question of arguing science. No one is suggesting that we have panels of scientists against say, Jenny McCarthy or other anti-vaxxer public health menaces. We know that vaccines save millions of lives–most of us have gotten to adulthood purely because of vaccines.

But what about the world of less clearly defined ideas? What about the world in which ISIS does exist, but so does Islam as one of the world’s major religions? What about the world in which one in four women is raped, but men and some women continue to argue that rape is a he said/she said social construct? What about the world in which women are unarguably second-class citizens from birth and male privilege does exist and men’s rights advocates believe they are the victims? What about a world in which lesbians and gay men have been fighting for equal rights as citizens for generations and some still believe they don’t deserve those same rights?

These are topics for discourse. The presumption that all college students are left wing is absurd. We know better. All these right wing politicians didn’t spring up overnight via some potion: they went to university, they formed ideas, they went out in the world.

What if they had been exposed to more left-leaning and compassionate perspectives? What then?

The point is we do a disservice to students when we allow them to no-platform. Universities and colleges are in loco parentis. There are rules. You must go to class to graduate. You can’t go to class drunk or high or smoking. So why isn’t there a rule that demands that students listen–or at least allow the possibility of listening–to alternative viewpoints, no matter whether we find them distasteful or not? I disagree with everything that Yiannopoulos says. But do I think he should be banned from speaking because he’s a right-wing ideologue? No, because the entirety of the concept of free speech—which is, after all, the basis of this current debate and arguably democracy itself—is that views we don’t agree with are protected. His, yours, mine and Julie Bindel’s.

What is the step between the no-platforming of a feminist speaker and the burning of her books? I think not much. In the words of the NUS and in specific, MSU, Bindel is a terrorist, pure and simple. Her ideas and the words she might speak are considered so inflammatory that people might leave the panel were she is speaking about whether or not feminism allows free speech and go out and commit violent acts.

Does anyone honestly believe that? Does anyone honestly believe that listening to her speak about gender non-conformity and violence against women would actually incite violence? Even writing it down seems absurd.

Of more concern, really, is Yiannopoulos’s perspective that rape is a fantasy, rather than a crime when we know–factually know, statistically know–that rape is not only a crime, but it is a crime of pandemic proportions.

And yet I still think Yiannopoulos needs to be heard, if only to refute his arguments and for an audience to make clear to him how wrong he is in his assertions.

The alternative in all of this, of course, is to just not attend. Don’t go to the speaking engagement of Bindel if you think she and her words are damaging or dangerous. But I would advise people to listen to her and hear for themselves what of her theories are supportable and which are not. That is, after all, the whole function of university: to be able to tease out what we agree with and what we do not. To learn to think for ourselves and not be told how to think by others, summarily.

This is not a dictatorship, after all. This is not a nation like China, where even Google references are censored. We can self-censor if we choose to do so. That’s the great benefit of democracy and free speech.

I have been reading Bindel for several years and am somehow able to agree with her on some things and disagree with her on others and not have my head explode at the dissonance or demand she be no-platformed for the ideas with which I disagree. One of my closest friends, a trans woman, Miranda Yardley, has somehow managed to speak on several occasions with Bindel and not feel like she is being physically or psychologically threatened by being in the same space as her. And yet obviously they are in disagreement over some fundamental issues related to gender and sex.

This neo-liberal fascism must cease. It’s far more damaging in sum to the minds of students everywhere than are the words of a feminist here, a men’s rights advocate there.

The argument against Bindel is that some of her radical feminist theory is read as hurtful to trans people. Obviously that cannot be dismissed. But the majority of what she writes and speaks about is affirming of the rights and legal needs of straight women, lesbians and trans women. If you don’t read her writing or listen to her speak, you can’t know this.

Conversely, the writing of Yiannopoulos is hurtful to women, lesbians and trans people. It is especially damaging to rape victims. As a rape victim myself who was nearly killed by the man who raped me and left with lasting physical wounds and scars, I could easily say that he should not speak because it would be triggering to me to hear his dismissal of rape after the near-fatal attack on me.

Yet no one is saying he shouldn’t speak, even though, unarguably, there is a vast number of people negatively impacted by his writing–especially women, lesbians, trans persons.

And so this is where we are in 2015: No-platforming feminists, embracing rape apologist MRAs. Can free speech exist under a 21st century feminism which has informed the neo-liberal no-platforming fascism of the NUS? It would seem not. That benefits none of us, no matter what our orientation or identity, but does the most damage to those of us who are already in marginalized groups. All no-platforming does is make it harder to examine the vast breadth of conflicting ideologies out in the world beyond the university walls. Which will ultimately breed more parochialism, not more compassion, empathy or understanding of the myriad and diverse lives beyond the classroom walls.

Listening to other people’s ideas helps us to understand our own better. That was ever the function of free speech. Banning ideas and disparate voices is the first step toward fascism. And we do know where that leads.


Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer andthe author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, Ordinary Mayhem, won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book Erasure: Silencing Lesbians will be published in 2016. @VABVOX



3 thoughts on “No-Platforming: The Neo-Liberal Fascism by Victoria A. Brownworth”

  1. I’m not aware of MSU not taking a decision on ISIS. That was the NUS. Two different things.

    There are however many speakers much more “problematic” than Milo and Bindel, who have been allowed by the MSU.

    – President, Free Speech and Secular Society

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