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Editorial: How to destroy our own movements

Activists need to find better ways to struggle with each other and to fight with each other, argues Milan Rai

'People ask me how we would defend the bookfair from a fascist attack, but I’m not worried about them out there. I worry about what we might do to each other in here.’ – one of the organisers of the London Anarchist Bookfair, on 28 October.

A few hours later, a group of trans rights activists stopped some feminists handing out leaflets that they found oppressive to trans women. A nontrans woman, Helen Steel, objected to this censorship. About 30 trans rights activists then surrounded Helen Steel and shouted at her for having stood up for the leafleters.

The confrontation went on for a long time. Some people (including members of the bookfair collective) surrounded Helen Steel to protect her from possible assault. An unknown person then tripped the fire alarm, leading to an evacuation of the building.

After the bookfair, there was sharp criticism of the organisers. The collective have decided not to organise the London Anarchist Bookfair next year. We’ve published lots of relevant documents in this issue, in full or (in one case) nearly in full, to give PN readers the chance to make up your own minds about what’s happened at one of the most important radical gatherings in Britain.

We believe this conflict has wider significance for grassroots movements for change, not just in Britain.

Steel by name

Our starting point is that standing up for free speech is necessary and important. It is appalling that 30 activists gathered to threaten someone for standing up for the right to leaflet. It is shocking that people in the crowd shouted ‘ugly TERF’, ‘fucking TERF scum’, ‘bitch’, and ‘fascist’ at her because she refused to accept their harassment of two women leafleters. This kind of bullying is completely unacceptable. (The word ‘TERF’ is now mostly used as a derogatory term meaning ‘someone with transphobic views’. It originally stood for ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’.) It’s shameful that groups have issued statements of solidarity with the trans rights activists without criticising this intimidation.

When Helen Steel stood up for freedom of speech, when organisers of the bookfair helped to protect her, these were courageous and principled acts.

We shouldn’t allow anyone, whether the government or any activist group, the right to dictate what ideas should be allowed to circulate. Freedom of speech is deeply connected to freedom of thought. Most of us discover what we really think by talking with others, by expressing ourselves, and then hearing other people’s responses. Everyone should have the chance to find their own political truths, to make mistakes, to grow and to stand on their own feet intellectually.

There is an old slogan: the answer to bad speech is more speech. In 1969, US anarchist Noam Chomsky wrote: ‘a movement of the left condemns itself to failure and irrelevance if it does not create an intellectual culture that becomes dominant by virtue of its excellence and that is meaningful to the masses of people who, in an advanced industrial society, can participate in creating and deepening it’.

Our arguments should become dominant by virtue of their excellence, not because we have shouted down the other side.

Shutting down debate – by shouting people down or blockading a talk or triggering a fire alarm – can be seen as a lack of confidence, a lack of belief that you have the arguments to win the argument.

Free speech

Defending someone’s freedom of expression is not the same as approving of what they are saying. Chomsky points out: ‘If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. Otherwise you’re not in favour of freedom of speech.’

When should free speech be limited? Chomsky stands with the US supreme court ruling of 1969 which said that speech should always be protected from legal punishment except when people are trying to incite, and likely to produce, ‘imminent lawless action’ with their words. According to this standard, the law should not be used to stop or punish speech that justifies or advocates oppressive violence in general. The law should only be used against speech when those words are being used to try to start an actual violent attack right here, right now (‘imminently’).

Whatever else you might say about them, none of the gender-related leaflets passed out at the bookfair either justified or tried to incite anti-trans violence. The nearest the bookfair came to imminent violence was when 30 people surrounded Helen Steel.

It has been claimed that what was written in these leaflets was a form of violence. This is to bend the meaning of words completely out of shape. Offensive or oppressive speech is not violence.

If you choose to define oppressive speech as violence, and if you accept the right of violent self-defence, then it is justified to carry out violence against pretty much everyone, because we all say things that are oppressive or that can be seen as oppressive.

Yes, hate speech can help create a climate of intolerance and hatred which encourages violent attacks. That doesn’t mean hate speech is violence or that it should be subject to legal punishment. (We’re not saying the leaflets were hate speech.)

How to destroy ourselves

In our last editorial, we described how conservatives, liberals, socialists and communists all helped to create an authoritarian climate in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, paving the way for Nazism (PN 2610–2611).

The socialist SPD banned meetings, newspapers and demos. The communist KPD broke up meetings. Together, they undermined democratic habits and independent thinking within German working-class movements, leaving them paralysed when the Nazis came to power.

When we stop public discussions, either through the law or through some kind of force (like a fire alarm), we move politics away from debate and persuasion, what pagan activist Starhawk calls ‘power with’, towards the world of force and compulsion, what Starhawk calls ‘power over’ others. If politics turns into a ‘power over’ game, the winners will be those who are most brutal. That outcome won’t favour any kind of feminist.

Every time disruption or threats make it impossible to hold a public meeting – whoever is speaking, whatever their views – we undermine free speech and we weaken our already weak movements for change.

We need to find better ways to struggle with each other and to fight with each other, to disagree deeply while continuing to work together where we can. We need to create bigger, stronger activist organisations, independent media, radical publishers and bookfairs. We need to support the London Anarchist Bookfair, not destroy it. We should be inspired how it makes freedom work.

Editorial note: In five articles ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5]), Peace News is documenting the free speech conflict at this year’s (2017) London Anarchist Bookfair. The origins of the Anarchist Bookfair are briefly recounted here, and the issues concerning free speech are the subject of this issue's editorial above.

Milan Rai is PN editor.


Other perspectives

For what it's worth, a few other perspectives on the conflict:
my own thoughts
solidarity statement with the bookfair collective
AFED trans action faction position
Empty Cages Collective
Green and Black Cross statement
Class War's take
good thread from twitter user Charlotte Moth
Angela Last and Anja Kanngieser
With such a range of positions, to give four of your five slots over to the bookfair collective, Helen Steel and the original leaflets themselves, and then only reproduce one piece from the more critical side of the conflict, feels a tad one-sided.
But then, when we get onto the question of Peace News' editorial stance, all kinds of interesting questions come up. Since you've taken this radical pro-free speech, "the answer is more speech" position, does this mean you'll now accept promotional content from BAE Systems? Why not editorials from Hillary Benn about why we should bomb wherever Hillary Benn wants to bomb this week, or from Michael Gove about the glory of WWI? Perhaps you could open your pages up to representatives of Saudi Arabia to explain why their actions in Yemen are totally proportionate and justified, or give space to Ratko Mladic to explain why his conviction should be overturned?
Of course, we both know that you won't be doing any of those things, and that there's nothing wrong with that decision. But that's what's so frustrating here - I think we actually agree on the fundamental point that there's nothing inherently authoritarian and oppressive with having a set of basic minimum principles for how to make decisions about how a certain space (say, a magazine, or a website, or a bookfair) should be used.
If you think that transphobic leaflets don't go against those principles, and so the decision should be made to include them, and I think that they do go against those principles, and so a decision should be made to reject them, then fine, we disagree on that point; but deep down I think we both recognise that those principles have to be in place and those decisions have to be made, so it's not helpful to try and make this disagreement into something bigger than it is by pretending that you think the whole idea of having a set of principles, or ever making any decisions about suitable and unsuitable uses of a space, is inherently oppressive and authoritarian.