March 8, 2014 | Are feminists under attack—from campus feminists?
Note: This story was due to run between March 3 and 7, but didn’t in the end. This is the draft copy.
“No platform for fascists”—it’s a decades old strategy used on European campuses, supposedly to keep dangerous ideas from spreading. It’s controversial, but simple: deny the right to speak and the ideas won’t catch on. But what about “No platform for feminists?”
It sounds like an assault from the radical right, or perhaps an old boys’ club who want to turn back the clock on women’s liberation, but one feminist, Julie Bindel, has found herself excluded from universities not by men’s rights activists, but by feminists and a reinvigorated campus left.
Invited to the feminist society of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Ms. Bindel was due to speak on “women’s resistance” but was told she was unwelcome after students expressed “discomfort” at the idea of her presence.
It’s not the first time she has been banned from campus. In fact, it’s becoming a recurring theme in her career as a journalist and speaker.
Ms. Bindel is controversial. As a radical feminist she has advocated “political lesbianism”, the idea that all women should be homosexual for political reasons; but many say students supposed to grapple with difficult and controversial ideas. Philosophy students read Heidegger and Nietzsche, history students investigate war, slavery and imperialism and in neither case does anyone think they are mere sponges uncritically absorbing ideas.
Given this, a feminist becoming the center of complaint may seem mystifying. Ms. Bindel’s real offence, though, ha been objecting to the presence of transexual women at women-only meetings. A new generation of “intersectional” feminists disagrees, arguing that previous waves of feminist thinking, both mainstream liberal and radical, contribute to the oppression of other marginalised groups, including black women and transexuals. This has led to toxic Twitter spats and is now making its presence felt in university politics.
“They’re creating a McCarthyite climate. It’s a ‘Queer’ thing, supported by some gay men, loads of lesbians and most straight young feminists who don’t know any better,” she says.
“They tend to mostly bother with lesbian feminists. They think they have the right not to be offended.”
Offence-taking is on the rise, and it’s not always clear who is on whose side. Ms. Bindel’s fellow radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys has had her lectures at Australia’s University of Melbourne picketed. More traditional feminist campaigns have led to many British university student groups banning what they consider sexist music, notably Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, while The Sun tabloid newspaper, which features a daily photograph of a topless woman, has been banned from several more.
But transsexuality is particularly sensitive issue. Comic Ellen DeGeneres was recently censured in the press for making what was perceived as a transphobic joke while hosting the Oscar ceremony.
Back at college, some say a rising tide of sensitivity, often heralded as critical thinking, is interfering with universities’ ability to disseminate knowledge.
Joanna Williams, lecturer in education at the University of Kent and author of “Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t be Bought”, says facing difficult ideas is an essential part of an education.
“Students who demand controversial ideas be outlawed from campus demonstrate a degraded view of themselves and their peers, in the name of protection they are rejecting the intellectual challenge which should be at the heart of the university experience,” she says.