This is a bit of a departure from my usual blog activity, but it’s been really bothering me and I wanted to get it off my chest..
EDIT: so this post has been getting a lot of attention, which is nice. I wanted to add a few things to it in light of some of the responses.
1) if you look below, you’ll see Peter Tatchell has given a response. Unfortunately he’s basically ignored the entire point of the article, and instead claimed that he never said he was being no platformed, despite the fact that in the post he made he clearly claims he is a victim of silencing through no platforming, and everyone arguing for him is also describing it as such. He’s saying the problem is just the fact that Fran called him a transphobe and a racist, though of course he still hasn’t shared the actual email so we don’t know what they actually said and are just going by his word (rumour is it was far more nuanced and thought out than he’s claiming).
2) I haven’t been approving most of the comments on this post, simply because most of them were just parroting Tatchell’s original statement and responding to them would have simply been repeating myself which I can’t be bothered to do. They talked about how terrible no platforming is (despite Tatchell claiming he never said he was no platformed) and that Fran deserves it because of what they wrote about Tatchell (despite the fact that none of us have actually seen what they wrote). Of course there was also people saying I should worry about more important things, because of course as we all know it’s physically impossible to care about more than one thing at once.
Basically if you’re not adding anything new to the conversation I’m not going to approve your comment.
EDIT 2: Fran has responded to Tatchell’s allegations. Their reasoned and nuanced tone makes a massive contrast to Tatchell’s bombastic and dramatic post about it. Of course it probably won’t get anywhere near as much press as he did, but I hope people will at least consider it before claiming Tatchell is beyond reproach
Dear Peter Tatchell,
We’ve been talking on Twitter about this but I wanted to write something here to you as there’s a lot that I want to say and a 140 character limit just doesn’t work for me.
The last few days I’ve been reading the many articles based on your statement about NUS LGBT officer Fran Cowling, and how they refused to share a stage with you at an event. Many, many articles. Every single one of these are supporting your claims that you are being unfairly silenced, that this is an example of how freedom of speech is being eroded in universities and activists are becoming unreasonable and turning on innocents.
However what is missing from all this is that you were never actually under attack. Fran isn’t a well known figure beyond their own circles, and they weren’t even making these comments publicly – it all happened in private emails between them and the organisers of the event. They had been invited to speak alongside you, and they responded that they didn’t want to. Now this is something which they are completely within their right to do, freedom of speech is also freedom to not engage. So then it seems the organisers forwarded the email onto you. It’s understandable that you might want to reach out to them, to see if you could talk it through. But they didn’t want to have that conversation with you, which again they are free to do.
Now most people at this point would just shrug it off and leave it be – so someone doesn’t want to hang out with you, no biggie, not everyone can like you after all. Some might have a bitch to their friends about it then move on. But you took it one step further, writing on your website, naming and shaming Fran, saying their desire not to engage with you represented an oppressive erosion of free speech. And this got picked up by pretty much all the national newspapers, and many other blogs and websites, all overwhelmingly supportive of your point of view and joining in in berating Fran and lamenting the ideology you portrayed them as representing.
You claim that you wrote this public response to a private email as a “defence”, but my question would be what exactly were you defending yourself from? Did you honestly feel like your freedom of speech was under threat, especially when you consider that you spoke at the event in question after all, and that you’re sitting comfortably with your regular Guardian column and the foundation which bears your name?
Meanwhile when you google Fran Cowling the results are dominated by articles about you. Everyone is writing about them, and the tone ranges from the mainstream broadsheets cooly reporting on your original statement to aggressive hate filled rants about how Fran represents everything that’s wrong with modern student activism. How do you think this has affected them, and will affect them in the future? So far it’s resulted in them shutting down their Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, and I’ve heard from those close to them that it’s been incredibly difficult for them (Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed goes into detail about how these kinds of shamings can and do ruin people’s lives, job prospects and mental health). And not forgetting that these things are always harder for people perceived as women.
There’s one simple fact that you don’t seem to understand in this situation where you’ve painted yourself as the poor victim of an over-zealous oppressor, and that is that you are the one with the power in this situation. Fran is a young student activist, while you are a celebrity with a Guardian column and a foundation named after yourself. Fran Cowling is not a threat to your freedom of speech. However your actions have harmed them in a way which sends a clear message that you are not to be messed with or criticised, even in private, otherwise all hell will break loose and you’ll release the hounds/press releases. Now I don’t know about you but that sure doesn’t sound like a situation conducive to freedom of speech to me.
My assumption is that you are so used to seeing yourself as the oppressed underdog that you simply didn’t realise what you were doing. That you see Fran as similar to the closeted politicians who you outed in the 90’s, powerful public figures who needed to be held to account for the hypocrisy of being complicit in the oppression of LGBT folk whilst engaging in gay sex romps. That you forgot that Fran is not like those people, and that you don’t need to protect yourself from things they say in a private email that wasn’t even intended for you or anyone else to see.
The alternative, that you knew exactly what you were doing and purposely wanted to ruin the public reputation of a young activist who privately criticised you and refused to respond to your emails, is something that I really don’t want to believe, of you or anyone.