Index on Censorship: please keep standing up strongly for freedom of speech on sex and gender
Index on censorship is intervening in my case, and I am grateful for that, but I am also worried about the turn of their recent statement on the issue.
Index on Censorship is one of the few established organisations that has stood up for freedom of speech around sex and gender.
It gave evidence in the case of Harry Miller v Humberside Police and has condemned the abuse faced by JK Rowling, first in June on Twitter:
And recently it reiterated condemnation of the abuse of JK Rowing in a blogpost by CEO Ruth Smeeth “We need to end the abuse around discussions of feminism and trans rights”.
Index’s stand on this issue is in contrast to its peers in the human rights world. English, Scottish, America and International Pens declined to mention Rowling by name in their recent joint statement on online harassment. So did the Fawcett Society and their partner organisation Glitch. The Robert F Kennedy Foundation went so far as to condemn her as transphobic. When the columnist Suzanne Moore made similar arguments about sex and gender, the leaders of Amnesty International and Liberty felt it appropriate to sign a 200 signatory letter of condemnation.
Index has also stood up for me; first when I launched my case, when then CEO Jodie Ginsberg commented:
“From what I have read of her writing, I cannot see that Maya has done anything wrong other than express an opinion that many feminists share — that there should be a public and open debate about the distinction between sex and gender.”
And more recently: Index applied to intervene in the appeal for case (and has been given permission to do so) in order to highlight the freedom of speech issues it raises.
I am grateful that Index is intervening in my case, but I am also worried about the message in Ruth Smeeth’s recent blogpost which presented “both sides” as having their freedom of speech restricted, and announced a new workstream “to build spaces for dialogue on this subject” (and I am not alone in this- more discussion on Mumsnet)
It’s good to talk, and I agree that Index on Censorship does not need to pick a side in substantive questions on public policy around sex and gender. But that does not mean it should naively jump into “building spaces” for dialogue. Its role is to understand, expose and challenge why there has been so little constructive dialogue in the organisations and forums whose job it is to facilitate debate, such as universities, think tanks, political parties, parliament, public bodies, civil society organisations and the media.
Smeeth’s blog post presents the much-repeated line that the debate is ”toxic”, with limited constructive dialogue. This is, on one level, true, and easy to say. (Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Society has said the same, as has Rebecca Hilsenrath of the Equality and Human Rights Commission). But it is not for lack of trying by those on the gender critical side.
It is this same line which had been used by establishment organisations to avoid tacking the issues with clarity and openness, while leaving those of us who have spoken up out in the cold (for example most recently by Keir Starmer in ducking the question of whether he will stand up for Rosie Duffield).
The impression that there is some easily reached middle ground if only someone would convene a non-toxic discussion is only held by those who haven’t tried, or (as in the case of the Fawcett Society and EHRC) have refused to try.
Please don’t misread the situation
The ‘both sides’ narrative does not accurately capture what is going on, which is that debate about policies is being systematically silenced through people being made fearful at work, for their careers and for the funding of their organisations. And this is only happening to one side of the debate.
Three statements the Index blog stood out as misreadings of the situation:
“Some are genuinely scared to engage in any of the issues for fear of abuse”
This does not name the problem. What ‘gender critical’ people are scared of is losing their livelihoods and careers. My case is the tip of a substantial iceberg of people who have been made afraid to speak up publicly, because they know they will be reported to their employer, regulator or publisher, and that people will shun them in professional circles. Almost everyone I know who has spoken up (however politely, carefully and rationally) has been the subject of such complaints. Some have been shrugged off, but many have led to disciplinary processes, and in some cases loss of work. This is not a set of individualised personal conflicts between difficult people, nor is it ‘hate’ (although to an unwary HR department it can look that way), it is an ideology that is systematically entrenching its position in organisations by weaponising offence to silence anyone who might challenge it.
“Trans people’s voices are not being heard and that their stories have been largely censored “
No evidence is offered for this. here is no equivalent employment threat to people who tweet “trans women are women”. Smeeth mentions “a struggling blogger expressing their gender identity” but it is not clear what struggle she is referring to. There are many groups of people whose voices are rarely heard; the “transwidows” (ex wives and partners, of men who transition later in life), young women who desist and detransition (Keira Bell had to take a case to the High Court to bring this story out into the open, but there are many more who dare not speak out), parents fighting for mental health support for their children who are being told they were ‘born in the wrong body’, but who cannot go public with their concerns; the women in prison and in locked mental health wards being forced to share with male prisoners and inmates, and to treat male mental health nurses as if they were female; the police women and prison guards forced to strip search intact male prisoners (sometimes violent and often sex-offenders).
“There is limited constructive dialogue, a huge amount of hate and little meeting in the middle ground to discuss practical ways to come together”
Blaming the lack of constructive dialogue on “a huge amount of hate” is concerning. Unevidenced and overhyped accusations of “hate” and “transphobia” are precisely what are used to harass, victimise and shut people up on this.
Index knows this, having given evidence in the Harry Miller case where it said:
“Index is concerned by the apparent growing number of cases in which police are contacting individuals about online speech that is not illegal and sometimes asking for posts to be removed…The confusion of the public (and police) around what is, and what is not, illegal speech may be responsible for artificially inflating statistics on transgender hate crime … Police actions against those espousing lawful, gender critical views — including the recording of such views where reported as ‘hate incidents’ — create a hostile environment In which gender critical voices are silenced….It has been reported that the hostile environment in which this debate is being conducted is preventing even members of parliament from expressing their opinions openly.”
Hearing Index on Censorship slip from this careful analysis of the situation to making careless statements about ‘a huge amount hate’ when so many of us have faced real consequences from such vague claims in our workplaces, professional networks, political parties, trade unions and other associations is worrying.
I would love to see Index turn their fearless spotlight to understanding and exposing the specific means and mechanisms through which freedom of speech about sex, and the impact of gender identity policies, is being systematically repressed. A useful step would be to use their platform to enable people to tell these stories.