I was invited last year to speak at the Oxford Union, and the event, held last February, perfectly illustrates the current faux debate between hate speech and free speech. The Oxford Union is the self-proclaimed “world’s most prestigious debating society” and “last bastion of free speech” and it rides on a who’s who list of past speakers such as the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Malcolm X, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. Membership is open only to Oxford students, and lifetime membership includes a very large selection of the world’s politicians and media moguls. Past Union presidents who went on to lead states include Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, and UK Prime Ministers Heath, Asquith and Gladstone. The current UK cabinet has more former presidents of the Oxford Union than it has minority ethnicities. This platform is as far as you can get from the egalitarian access of social media.
The Oxford Union serves as a safe space where powerful men who do horrible things can go to speak and be appreciated. Despite the protestations that a platform at Oxford Union is meant to allow unpopular views to be challenged, it doesn’t happen. Speakers ranging from O.J. Simpson after his trial to Oswald Mosley, who led the UK Fascist Party until it was banned in 1940, are welcomed on their own terms. This is the free speech that Boris Johnson (former Oxford Union president) and Jacob Rees-Mogg (current Oxford Union trustee and son of former Oxford Union president) are fighting for. The UK has recently passed a law against Union members or other students exercising their own free speech and expressing opinions on who comes to speak at their club, threatening fines against universities who refuse platforms to those assumed to have a right to one. At the same time, UK lawmakers and media have been fighting against free speech access on every more egalitarian platform. The misogynists who upskirt teenagers on the pages of British tabloids deplore the misogyny of social media. The lawmakers who refuse to conduct a competent inquiry into UK child rape cover-ups by politicians imprison accusers instead. The Official Secrets Act, libel and ‘intellectual property’ laws which protect only the powerful, and non-disclosure agreements available only to those who can afford them, ensure a class strata dictates who may and who may not be criticized or offended.
The Oxford Union is the public face of the Bullingdon Club and the Piers Gaveston Society and looks it, but even this last bastion of entitlement is lately feeling pressure to embellish itself with a sprinkling of darker skin and female pronouns. Identity politics provides the branch managers of tyranny. The endless twaddle of Tories and Trumpkins which usually fills Oxford Union term cards is now supplemented with occasional Serena Joys and Gileadian aunts in the name of ‘feminism’ and occasional corrupt politicians for ‘diversity’. Polite demurs from careerist NGOs and journalists paid to politely demur are occasionally presented as ‘balance’. It is in this context that I was invited. For students of a prestigious university, they have no research skills at all.
Diversity of opinion, or even irrefutable facts, are not acceptable to the “world’s most prestigious debating society”. The purified thought bubble surrounding Oxford students welcomes derision against any weaker members of society but does not permit criticism of those in power. I shared a panel with David Shedd, a former CIA operative who also held the posts of Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and Deputy Director of U.S. National Intelligence. The entire panel was censored from Oxford Union’s YouTube channel at his order, despite their contractual obligation to publish it there and the prior release forms signed by all involved. “It is ironic that we are censoring a Whistleblowing Panel!!” chirped their bursar, Lindsay Warne. Shedd’s objection was not to anything he said, but what I said – a third-party censorship demand which has been granted and upheld by three successive Oxford Union presidents: Laali Vadlamani, Gui Cavalcanti and Stephen Horvath. Those names will no doubt be found in UK parliament and media in five or ten years, drafting even more draconian laws to protect the powerful against speech.
The speech of tyranny is always upheld by tyrants as free speech. The speech of anyone in opposition to tyranny will always be silenced by every means possible. Harmful speech has never in history meant anything other than speech which offends the powerful and it does not today. From the Malleus Malleficarum through to the upskirting tabloids, media controlled by the powerful has existed to uphold the powerful and persecute, threaten and control the weak. It has never been subjected to censure over this. Indeed, protection of the media has been a fundamental pillar of advocates of free society since media was invented and that only increased with the invention of the Internet as a place to stalk and humiliate women and children. Suddenly, this has changed, and I think I can put a date on when it changed.
In 2012, Gawker (before it was permanently silenced by billionaire Peter Thiel) published a story on Michael Brutsch, aka reddit moderator Violentacrez. In 2012, reddit was a cesspool that reflected the free speech of powerful men at the expense of the human dignity and privacy of anyone weaker, and Violentacrez was its most prolific bottom feeder. In the words of journalist Adrian Chen, “His specialty is distributing images of scantily-clad underage girls, but as Violentacrez he also issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations yet unnamed.” Brutsch moderated hundreds of the most predatory sub-reddits, including Creepshots, Jailbait, Chokeabitch, Beatingwomen, Picsofdeadjailbait and even worse, to the glee of reddit users, who voted the child predator site Jailbait as 2008’s “subreddit of the year”. Four years later (as part of a growing reaction) he was outed by Chen, and reddit exploded in outrage, banning all Gawker links from the traffic generating behemoth. The privacy of a man to anonymously violate the privacy of women and children was itself violated, and the balance of power on the Internet was never the same again.
The Internet become a place where, for the first time since the printing press was invented, women and other marginalized people could fight back and get overwhelming results. It was the place where Pax Dickinson, CTO of Business Insider, lost his job for misogynist tweets and was followed by so many others. It was the place where #takedownjulienblanc first created global awareness of the toxic internet manosphere which has spawned such movements as incels, PUAs, MRAs and more. It was the place where victims of sexual assault have rallied again and again, from the #DelhiGangRape to #paedobritain and #opDeathEaters to #MeToo and #Cuéntalo. And it was the place where the powerful libertarian men who controlled all the international media, academia and speaking forums, first decided that free speech should have limitations. This newly commended censorship is presented as a measure needed to protect ‘the marginalized’ even though it was the powerful and their media who marginalized ‘the marginalized’ in the first place and the censorship is directed solely at the forums accessible to ‘the marginalized’. The new censorship, combined with forced public acceptance of platforms for the powerful, is meant to ensure the continuation of the freedom of speech that powerful people have always enjoyed and more easily enforce immunity from the social consequences of either their speech or their actions.
Does anyone really think the current howls for censorship of social media will include censorship of the NY Times writers excusing incel violence or the Atlantic writers who want women to be hung for exercising bodily autonomy? Social media is the only reason these writers are challenged now – censorship of social media will remove all opposition to them. The business model of Facebook and Google is to enable states and corporations to coerce public opinion for the powerful. Tech CEOs are now being ordered to decide which speech and which people are socially acceptable. Does anyone think billionaire tech CEOs will defy their funders and enablers to defend the powerless or censor the powerful? Powerful men who have sadistically raped, tortured, trafficked and murdered women and children are unironically presenting themselves as victims of a witch hunt. Free speech for victims of powerful men is not a witch hunt. A witch hunt was when powerful men and their exclusive access to media inspired a genocide of up to a million women and indigenous people and terrified community and land caregivers into centuries of silence. Today’s social media campaigns are the accused witches finally fighting back, countering the media which called them all ‘crazy’ with sheer numbers.
All genocides and all bigotry begin with hate speech. Hate speech is countered by open communities and communication, never by one-way powerful platforms and definitely not by state or corporate control and manipulation of dialogue. Nazis and fascists in the street are countered by community rejection, never the states which instigate and profit from hate and division. If there was any doubt that this is conscious state policy, that doubt should be removed by the relentless state and corporate campaigns currently sowing hate and division on social media. Civility and the institutions of civility were invented to control voices opposing the powerful just as the institutions of justice were invented to control defence against the powerful. It is always the voices of women and the lowest classes that civility demands be kept well-modulated and profanity-free.
Identity politics has played a crucial role in the new fight against egalitarian speech. An endless parade of female pundits have been given bylines and panel seats to insist that social media silences them. Censorship is being marketed with the faces of women and children. Now that we finally have a megaphone, we are told it is more than our weak selves can handle. The women who are acceptable to places like the Oxford Union tell the world that the rest of us can’t handle free speech and must be protected by gatekeeping bastions such as … well, such as the Oxford Union. If “the last bastion of free speech” will censor what I said, they will censor anyone who draws outside the lines. Community and land caregivers will be told they are represented by identitarian tokens parroting the words and agenda of fascists, a rainbow of totalitarians silencing all diversity of views. The next time women feel inclined to accept censorship on the only somewhat egalitarian platforms we have had since the invention of the printing press, remember what you will be left with: corporate media musing whether women should be publicly hung for exercising bodily autonomy or required to provide ‘redistribution of sex’ to men who want to kill them, and representation of us all by Ann Coulter and Marine Le Pen.
Anyone who seeks to represent you will be your tyrant. Your own voice is the only one that can represent your ideas and your ideas are the only part of your voice that matters. When you accept that women and other marginalized people are not capable of defending ourselves on the first platforms where we actually had power, you are accepting an all-powerful, patriarchal, protection racket which has never in history protected women or anyone marginalized from hate. The face of censorship is not women and children. It is Michael Brutsch and Pax Dickinson, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
The primary problems with social media today are caused by state and corporate interference and the personality centred structure, not free speech. It is state and corporate funded social media astroturfing campaigns, libel laws, ‘intellectual property’, non-disclosure agreements, official secrets, state and corporate propaganda, and all other cloaks shielding the powerful which need to be destroyed. Egalitarian access to public platforms must be protected above all, not for identity groups but for every individual voice.
Anyway, this is what you cannot say at
“the last bastion of free speech” “the safest space for punching down”. Pay attention, because this is what you will not be able to say anywhere if free speech continues to be restricted to exclusive ‘bastions’.
Here is the current Standing Committee of Oxford Union if you would like to confirm their free speech boundaries for yourself. The presidents (so far) who have supported the censorship are Laali Vadlamani, Gui Cavalcanti and Stephen Horvath. Here is Oxford Union on social media: