A lot has been written about the scope of freedom of speech. At what point does it stop being opinion and start to incite prejudice? The discussion has emerged again after the former journalist Toby Young was appointed to the board of England’s Office for Students. Now apparently an aspiring politician, Young has been blasted for deleting almost 50,000 posts on Twitter that were offensive to a range of people including women, the LGBT and people with disabilities.
I can feel the eyes rolling at the use of the words “offensive” and “women”. Last year’s Weinstein sexual abuse revelations and the #MeToo movement fueled a backlash against women who have suffered some form of sexual intrusion. This week, the likes of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson have rushed to defend Young’s appointment, painting the reaction to his horrible tweets as hysteria. Tweets in which he said things like, “actually mate, I had my dick up her arse” and crudely commented on a female politician’s breasts during the UK government’s PMQs.
Boys will be boys
This story harks back to the “locker room banter” of Donald Trump and whether or not it is acceptable to use highly-sexualised derogatory language about women in the public arena – and whether or not it damages their integrity. What message does it send to teenagers who are already exposed to explicit porn before their first real-life sexual experiences? What message does it send to young women and men entering their first jobs? Do men have to speak this way to gain promotions? Do women have to shrug their shoulders to ensure progression? Why are we not allowed to turn the table and ask if men believe it would be damaging if they were frequently discussed in sexual terms by women in power? I repeatedly hear women and men generalize about all women in negative terms based on a single example that could have just as easily occurred among men.
But what if the words ‘women’ and ‘men’ were switched out for the words ‘white people’ and ‘black people’? Would white people think it was acceptable for black people to be frequently discussed in derogatory sexual terms on public forums by influential figures? Would that be mere “locker room banter” that failed to hurt the integrity and social standing of black people? Would we say it had no effect on the prevalence of racism, or that it was just “white people being white people”? I certainly hope not, although Mr Trump has sadly made a decent attempt at normalising racist speech in the US.
As I write this, I am caught up in a Twitter spat with a man who believes that “freedom of speech is absolute” and that “hate speech is a bogus concept” used to shut down public debate. He argues that derogatory language is subjective. I suggest that calling him an “ignorant stupid man” is categorically derogatory and propose that he would not like that term to be used in any formulation of a public opinion of him. He says that I am bogging myself down “in hypotheticals” and that I do not understand the difference between open abuse and confected hate speech. I ask him if Mr Trump’s statement that all Mexicans are rapists is open abuse or hate speech. He tells me, for the umpteenth time, to stop asking questions and to start making points. This Twitter spat is pointless because he is deflecting and I am convinced that freedom of speech must be deployed in a respectable manner and with the mindfulness that each of us has our underlying prejudices, whether we know it or not.
The bottom line is that women are persistently discussed in sexual terms in public debates and this perpetuates the belief that they are inferior to men. This is because objectifying women serves to dehumanise them. And, while men can be objectified too, this type of discussion is barely visible and is never promoted or defended by women in power. There will also be people who actually believe that women are inferior to men but if someone’s beliefs are that staggeringly outdated, I don’t even know where to begin. Our reproductive organs are different and that is the one silly reason why there is so much division between us.
It is incredulous that openly sexist figures are still gaining high profile government appointments in one of the world’s most progressive societies. If you don’t think it’s such a big deal, replace sexist with racist and see how you feel.