The mild-mannered Cambridge Classics professor Mary Beard has described how she was left “wanting to cry” after being bombarded by aggressive trolls on twitter for two full days – merely for signing a letter in support of free speech. As we reported earlier this week, Prominent gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, a co-signatory of the letter, was also the victim of abuse which he said left him concussed thanks to sleep deprivation.
The onslaught began on Saturday after the Guardian published a letter, signed by 130 people in total, which argued against “no platforming” on university campuses of feminist and transgender speakers who hold controversial views.
The letter highlights four recent cases including the ‘no platforming’ of feminist writer Julie Bindel, and Cambridge University’s decision to withdraw an invitation to speak issued to the well-known feminist Germaine Greer.
The incidents suggested “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic”,” the authors said, adding: “Most of the people so labelled are feminists or pro-feminist men, some have experience in the sex industry, some are transgender.”
It decryed the tactic as “illiberal and undemocratic,” adding “Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying. We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.”
But far from encouraging debate, Beard and Tatchell have themselves now been labelled “transphobic”, in part for co-signing a letter along with individuals who have already been deemed transphobic, which Tatchell has railed against. “The letter was about freedom of speech, and includes no attack on trans rights. When I signed the letter I didn’t know who else was going to sign it. Now I am being condemned by the McCarthyite tactic of guilt by association,” he told the Independent.
In the days following the letter’s publication, Beard says she was “bombarded” by tweets and emails, including one tweet in which she was called “an unrepentent bigot”.
“I mean bombard,” she wrote on her blog site. “I got 60 tweets in the space of about an hour from one person alone.
The result, she said, is that she “went to bed wanting to weep. […] It wasn’t the force of any remark, it was the relentless pummelling of attack on the basis of extraordinary loaded, sometimes quite wrong, readings of the letter.”
Meanwhile, Tatchell received over 5,000 trolling tweets, including one from an individual who told him “I would like to tweet your murder you fucking parasite.” He later said: “On Saturday night, after the first attacks started, I couldn’t sleep. I was so upset about being misrepresented as an anti-trans bigot. I woke up exhausted, and on my way to a LGBT conference, I tripped on the pavement, hit my head and suffered concussion, which I’m still feeling today.”
Following the controversy, many within the LGBT community have claimed that the no platforming does not constitute the withdrawal of freedom of speech. Sarah Brown, an executive member of the Liberal Democrats LGBT Group called the letter “nonsense”, claiming “some of the people who signed the letter did so with a transphobic agenda, as a dig at people who want an inclusive form of feminism involving the transgender community.
“I can understand people signing it and not being aware of the subtext, and I do not consider Peter Tatchell or Professor Beard transphobic, but signing that letter was not a friendly act towards trans people.
“The protest over Germaine Greer involved nothing more than a polite exchange with the union, a bit of peaceful leafleting, and an alternative event, at which I spoke. So the letter is criticising peaceful student protest – something I quite robustly support.”
But both have insisted that, whatever their detractors might say, it is possible to be both transgender and pro-free speech.
“What I would stand by, forever, would be the centrality of free debate in universities and elsewhere,” said Beard. “We should be in the business of subjecting all views, both those with which we agree and those with which we disagree, to public scrutiny. Free speech only means anything it is refers to views with which you disagree as well as agree – else it’s no more than a cabal.”
In his own piece defending his decision to sign the letter, Tatchell agreed, writing: “For me, free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights. It is the foundation of a democratic, open society. It should be defended without exception, unless it involves threats, harassment or incitements to violence. The most effective way to defeat bigoted ideas is not by proscription but by challenging and exposing them – and by presenting better, non-bigoted ideas.”