Saturday 1 October 2016

Katie Byrne: not up for discussion

Are some feminist groups closing down debate?

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne

A few months ago I read a Twitter conversation started by Caitlin Moran. The exchange began when the author congratulated Kiran Gandhi for running the London Marathon during her period without wearing a tampon.

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Gandhi told reporters she did it to de-stigmatise menstruation, and a number of women joined Moran in congratulating her. However, a few men questioned her message. One suggested that she should have worn a T-shirt or some other garment that outlined her cause - otherwise "most people would think she'd had an accident".

Another male Twitter follower of Moran's asked how we would react if a man performed a similar stunt, before questioning the hygiene of free-bleeding. "You'd object if a lady on a train had a nosebleed and did nothing to stop it being flicked around," he wrote.

His views were reproached by a female follower of Moran's who, after some back and forth, made it clear that she wouldn't be taking the conversation any further. "You're done," she wrote. And so he was.

This woman's response is the sort of knee-jerk, ad baculum retort that I've noticed many feminists defer to these days. This type of feminist reserves the right to close down debate when they don't like the line of questioning. Sometimes their jaws are slack with indignation before the answer to their loaded question has even been versed. You know this face - maybe you've made this face - and you know it doesn't encourage discourse.

The other way to wind up debate of this nature is to call someone a misogynist, or indeed a misandrist. I've seen a few cases where this indictment was warranted but hundreds more where it was not. It's a generalised charge that once again silences the opposition.

Elsewhere, Everyday Feminism describes itself as "one of the most popular feminist digital media sites in the world". However, not everyone is invited to join the debate on its Facebook page. The editors ask that posters "adhere to the guidelines... and to the spirit of the community we seek to create". To this end, comments that "attempt to derail the conversation to a tangential topic that doesn't further the conversation" are not allowed.

The same is true of most moderated websites, however here "claims that situations targeting marginalised people are not actually related to oppression, particularly from privileged commenters who aren't impacted by the post's topic" are not allowed. They describe this as 'privilege explaining' - "when a person of privilege is explaining a marginalised person's own experience to them. This often shows up in the form of mansplaining, whitesplaining, cisplaining, thinsplaining and straightsplaining".

The Feminism Subreddit also has a reputation for banning subscribers that don't toe the party line. They say they welcome "criticism of feminist concepts/organisations/persons" but only if it meets the following criteria: "Is properly qualified: ie, it correctly identifies the problem at the appropriate level, instead of unwarrantably generalising it, especially if it does so for the whole collection of movements that constitute feminism". In my view, these are not spaces for open discourse. They are echo chambers in which prevailing doctrines are expounded.

Modern feminism talks a lot about the checking of one's privilege, yet it rarely examines the enormous privilege it takes when it shuts down debate that doesn't support its ideology.

I think we can all agree that lewd, indecent and offensive comments should be removed from forums at once. This is something else entirely. It's the removal of comments that don't comply with group-think - and it's happening at every level.

Feminist Julie Bindel was recently banned from appearing at a talk at the University of Manchester Students' Union over her controversial views on transgender people. Ironically, the debate was titled 'From liberation to censorship: does feminism have a free-speech problem?'.

Organisers say they were worried Bindel's attendance would impeach the university's "safe space policy". In case you missed the memo, safety has become a buzzword within feminist discourse. Every platform that purports to empower western women reminds them that they are in danger. I sometimes wonder if it's a semantic trap designed to further entrench our sense of victimhood...

It certainly divides the sexes. This is partly why some feminist groups have subverted 'men's rights' and 'men's issues' into little more than an attack on feminism itself. However, we need to be able to discuss male suicide, male domestic abuse and discrimination in the family courts without it becoming a conversation about which sex has the greater privilege.

Like a fundamentalist religion, dictatorial feminism believes that it has joined all the dots and has all the answers. However, progress simply isn't possible when you are more concerned about casting out heretics than hearing other viewpoints.

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