Free speech? What’s that?

There is a growing trend in the British academia to expect everyone to be on-message all the time.

October 26, 2015 12:13 am | Updated March 24, 2016 09:00 pm IST

A prominent writer and academic is being hounded for making remarks that her critics claim have hurt their sensitivities. A leading university has dropped plans to confer an honorary doctorate on her; and another is likely to cancel a lecture by her under pressure.

Sounds familiar? But before you ask, "So, what's new about it? It is happening in India everyday", here’s the twist: this story is from Great Britain, the self-proclaimed Mecca of free speech and open debate. And the writer and academic under attack is Germaine Greer, the enfant terrible of the feminist movement and author of the best-seller, The Female Eunuch . Her own former alma mater, Newnham College at Cambridge University, has reportedly turned down her candidature for an academic honour it proposed to confer on her.

Hasan Suroor

“While debate in a university should be encouraged, hosting a speaker with such problematic and hateful views towards marginalised and vulnerable groups is dangerous. Allowing Greer a platform endorses her views, and by extension, the trans-misogyny which she continues to perpetuate,” the petition argues.

This amounts to what is officially known as the “no platform’’ policy generally used to bar fascists, or racists and far Right groups from public events. Cardiff University is standing its ground, but, fearing abuse and physical attacks, Greer has decided to drop out unless the university takes measures to ensure her safety which has apparently been not forthcoming. Dismissing the university’s stand as “weak as a p***”, she said, “If the University of Cardiff cannot guarantee that I will not have things thrown at me then I won’t go there. I can’t be bothered.”

So, what did Greer exactly say that has caused such a furore?  Actually, nothing new. At a talk at Cambridge University, she simply repeated a view she is known to have held for many years — namely, that trans-gender persons who undergo surgery to become women are not “real” women in her opinion.

“I just don’t think that surgery turns a man into a woman. A perfectly permissible view. I mean, an un-man is not necessarily a woman…

A great many male to female transgender people do not look, sound or behave like women.”

And then Greer being Greer — not known to be subtle — added that though she still used female pronouns when referring to such people, it was only as a “courtesy”. Critics have accused her of promoting "transphobia" which, they claim, could encourage violence against trans-sexuals.

Greer, no shrinking violet even at 76, has hit back calling them "misogynist" arguing that she has merely expressed an opinion which others are free not to share. She says she had not attacked anybody personally or cast aspersion on those who undergo sex-change procedure.

“What they are saying is that because I don’t think surgery will turn a man into a woman I should not be allowed to speak anywhere.”

But this, really, is not about who said what. This is about a growing trend in the British academia to expect everyone to be on-message all the time; and any deviation from what is regarded as politically correct speech is met with a level of intolerance that one normally associates with the hang-'em-flog-'em mobs in less open societies.

It is ironic, to put it politely, that in a country where faith groups are routinely ridiculed for invoking their religious sensitivities and free speech campaigners want a "right to offend" , large swathes of secular terrain have become no-go areas. It has become impossible to open one's mouth without the risk of offending someone somewhere and provoking allegations of being a racist or a sexist. 

Recently, a Nobel Prize winning scientist had his distinguished academic career destroyed after being accused of “sexism” for making a light-hearted, off-the-cuff comment about women colleagues at a post-dinner meeting in South Korea. Tim Hunt, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2001, was forced out of his various academic positions. The University College London sacked him even without giving him a chance to explain; and was able to hang on to his membership of the Royal Academy only after offering a grovelling public apology.

And all this because of one clumsy joke which, according to him, was torn out of context. This is what he said, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”

Women present at the meeting took it simply as a joke, but back home in Britain the “mob” got to work and made sure that his career was finished. A show of support from a number of eminent women scientists who had worked him didn’t help save his career.

The fact is that interest groups are becoming increasingly hostile to any opinion that doesn’t conform to their idea of what is ‘acceptable’; and the Greer row is part of that dangerous trend.

No doubt, many will find her gratuitous intervention objectionable. The vulnerable trans-sexual community, especially, is entitled to criticise her. After all, who's she to “authenticate” whether someone is or is not a “real” woman if the person concerned thinks that they are? Certainly, she needs to challenged on her views, but to intimidate and abuse her and call for her to be banned from public platforms is clearly an over-reaction.

Greer does not hold any public office. She is a private citizen and a freewheeling intellectual well-known for her controversial views. Besides, she is not alone in holding such a view; several high-profile feminists have expressed similar views, and in fact there’s a big debate going on in feminist circles over the issue.

A better course would be to join the debate and challenge Greer & Co through argument rather than trying to gag them. But there’s a new climate of impatience with dissenting viewpoints: in India it is being driven by right-wing groups, while in Britain it is the liberal establishment that has taken the notion of political correctness too far.

But intolerance by any name is intolerance.

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