The whole debate on free speech is something that worries me lately. I never wanted to be a sheep and like to think for myself. To do that, I believe it helps to hear both sides of a debate. However, how can I reach a considered opinion if all dissenting opinion on one side of a debate is shut down?
The whole Germaine Greer protest springs to mind as one of the latest examples of this. Her speech about women and power; the lessons of the 20th century, given in Cardiff University, was preceded by protests and petitions which were part of a campaign to stop her speaking there at all.
The campaign began because of her opinions, not on the topic on which she was to speak, but her opinions about transgender women.
When I watched her in this BBC Interview I realised that prior to watching, I had been of the opinion that her sole purpose in appearing at the university was to talk about post-operative transgender women – not women and power. This is the problem when you scam social media – something of which I am frequently guilty.
The opinion which caused Germaine the problems is her opinion that post-operative transgender women are not women. She has stated in the past that unless you woke up at thirteen with knickers full of blood you cannot be a woman. In effect she is openly saying that a man can do what ever he likes to his body, but he will never in fact know what it feels like to be a woman.
Because of these views, some people decided that she should not be allowed to speak on any subject. However, if you listen to what she says in the BBC interview you will hear that Germaine believes that if a man wants to undergo surgical transformation then he should be allowed to do so.
She clearly states that this is not her issue and goes on to say that she has been accused of inciting violence towards transgender people – something she would never do.
The interviewer asks her to realise how transgender people may find her opinion hurtful and Germaine replies that people are hurtful to her all the time and that ‘they should try being an old woman.’
Seeing how older women are portrayed on television I would be inclined to sympathise. In fact after listening to her interview I don’t have much sympathy with the campaign against her speaking.
I certainly would be against her speaking if she was promoting violence towards, or calling for the imprisonment of transgender persons, or otherwise trying to encourage others to cause real harm.
But is disagreement, or difference of opinion real harm? Or should we, as she says, ‘try being an old woman.’
In real life we do get hurt. People do mock or discriminate against us for all sort of reasons. I have been mocked for my accent, my deafness and I have also been discriminated against because of my gender and because of where I was born.
Would I like the people who mocked me, or discriminated against me to be prevented from speaking about subjects in which they are expert – no. What would be the point?
Would I like them to be prevented from mocking, or discriminating against me – in an ideal world yes I would. If I thought it worked.
However, in the real world it is just not possible. There are laws against discrimination and like most laws, sometimes they work, other times not.
Much of discrimination is invisible. Again, using women as an example, women of talent can find themselves ignored. Their job applications unsuccessful, their business/artistic proposals not chosen.
The most powerful discrimination is invisible and this is why I would not want to shut down debate. It’s the secret conversations that hurt most, especially when it’s people in power engaging in them. A mature society should be able to handle differences of opinion without too much ado.
As for mockery. People who are different in any way from the norm have always been mocked. Can we prevent this? No, not in my opinion. All we do is move the mockery to a less public arena where the mockers are free to mock even more.
Encouraging debate and hearing from both sides may just change opinions. This in turn might prevent the mocking. Stifling opinion will change nothing. But as Germaine also said in this interview this is just my opinion.