Rape Threats: It’s A Free Speech Issue


Content note: this piece refers to misogynistic threats of violence

Recently the media has been full of stories about women in the public eye being subjected to sexist abuse online.  I’ve written in the past about the way women are singled out for vitriol which men simply do not have to face, and the tendency for the attacks to focus on their bodies rather than their ideas.  Just this week, Caroline Criado-Perez has spoken out about the way she was the target of a spate of hateful messages in the aftermath of her campaign to convince the Bank of England to keep a woman amongst the national luminaries pictured on banknotes.  Over the last year the academic Mary Beard, the critic Anita Sarkeezian and the journalist Helen Lewis have all faced appalling victimization simply for having opinions whilst being a woman.  And these are simply the most famous…

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Choice, Neoliberal, Libertarian Feminism and Intersectionality Bullies

Flavia Dzodan’s article in Tiger Beat which brings together elements of intersectionality, capitalism, and neoliberalism.

“The result of this constitution of neoliberal feminism as “the neutral” or the default, has also led to a sense of “amplified agency”. We are told to “maximize our freedom”, we should “brand ourselves better”, we should “choose our choices” and demand a better distribution of the resources. In the process, we are left with a feminism that imposes on us the moral task of maximizing our own value. This is a feminism of the individual with an inflated sense of the self that is devoted to the creation and administration of individual business opportunities in detriment of systemic change or, at the very least, in detriment of an analytical approach that examines our individual relations as part of a whole and our interactions and participation in a system of inequalities we cannot escape.”

“You’d feel differently if it was you”: Presumed Authenticity and The Death Penalty

Fairly recently I was in a conversation that circled the question of the death penalty. It’s a topic that I’ve spoken about before, both within and outside of this group of friends, and that I will no doubt speak about again at some point. We’re each of us quite vehement and the discussion quickly grew heated, with four on one side and one on the other. The four were for the death penalty. One was not. I was not.

I have several reasons for why I’m against the death penalty, considered carefully over a period of time. Firstly, I fear what the death penalty entails: its absolute finality. There is no room for reconsideration, no space for possible juridical or evidentiary errors. Death is absolute and the absolute is frightening. Secondly, in the simplest possible terms, the death penalty is contradictory to its own terms. The state’s choice to execute someone is to transgress its own laws against the death of its citizens. As a close friend once told me, the state cannot outlaw one person’s choice to kill another if the same choice can then be applied by the state with no repercussions. If the death penalty is something that is applied with regard to the need for the preservation and regard of life, as is often the descriptive rhetoric used to justify its need, then the execution of a person is against the basic principle that it uses to justify itself. Every time the state enforces the death penalty, it merely states to its citizens that it is above the laws that it established and enforces; the death penalty positions the state as supreme (Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’). There’s no way around this contradictory element. This isn’t the presumed simplicity of an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ scenario, this is about state sanctioned violence as well – there’s no getting around that complication unless you choose to deliberately blind yourself to it. 

Thirdly, the decision to apply the death penalty is one that I can’t seem to come to terms with. The violent death of an individual is more likely to engender the death penalty than white collar crime that could result in hundreds, if not thousands of deaths, albeit without what legality might term a direct link.The death penalty establishes a means by which to ascertain both, which life is worth preservation and which isn’t as well as which lives are worth seeking this level of redress and which aren’t: it establishes a hierarchy of lives and punitive measures. If the extent of the damage to society is the measure of the eventual sentence, then this no longer falls within a system of rationality; I cannot reconcile myself to a system that measures the weight of what would deserve death and what skirts its boundaries and what would lie within acceptable casualties. And since I cannot understand its logic, I choose not to endorse it.

Fourthly, the application of the death penalty finalises the issue. By this I mean that someone is executed for a crime and the event is seen as resolved: an attempt to inquire into the social, political, economic, physical, psychological or ideological reasoning is ended. The entire onus of the events that occur are thus placed on the individual/s in question. This isn’t simply about the question of mitigation (although that’s something I feel is incredibly pertinent), nor is it about the fact that society might have and might continue to produce an individual that transgresses its norms, but is also about the fact that the system of incarceration is predicated upon the assumption of deterrent, redress and redemption: to presume that an individual is incapable of redemption is to proffer the death penalty. It’s to deny the right to try. I’m not willing to stand behind that assumption.

For quite some time my personal recommendation has been to suggest incarceration and compulsory therapy as the most viable solution. It’s not a perfect system and I have no doubt that there would be issues on both sides – the perhaps prohibitive cost, therapists and patients unwilling to work with each other, patients who cannot respond to therapy, coming to a consensus on the type of therapy that would be implemented, the safety and inevitable burnout of therapists who are willing to undertake this task, patients who manage to work their way through the system without therapy having any effect – that make this a harder solution to consider. However, two things sustain me in this regard: the first is that people who genuinely need help might have the chance to get it; and secondly, should a therapist feel that a patient is unable to respond and might be a danger to others, they could be assessed and committed until further options become available.

While I was prepared for this to be an unpopular opinion, I wasn’t prepared for the reason my point of view was declared invalid. It wasn’t engagement with my argument, nor was it any alternate theorising that would justify the death penalty outside of the four major points I’d just offered. It was blanket dismissal: “You’re saying these things because you’ve never had to deal with anyone who was hurt, and I hope you or yours never have to. But you’d feel differently if it was you.”

I had no response to this sweeping statement at the time. I was angered and disappointed, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that so upset me. It wasn’t the fact that my opinion was disregarded; I’d known that was going to be the case going into the argument itself. Nor was it the fact that they clearly viewed my stance as one of naivety. It wasn’t until much later that I finally understood what I had found so jarring at the time: the presumption that the only way in which to establish my opinion would have been to have laid claim to an experience of pain, whether myself directly, or indirectly through someone I know. Conversely, should I have acceded to what I felt was the more extreme notion of the death penalty, the authenticity of my experience would have been of no concern. Huh.

I find this troubling. Of the five of us there that night, none of us have been involved in anything that would necessitate the death penalty, either for or on behalf of ourselves. However, one of us works with victims of sex crimes, and it was she who mentioned my lack of an authentic experience. Her assumption was that if I’d seen the results of certain crimes, I too would come to see things her way and support calls for the death penalty. Perhaps on the surface this seems fair enough: her proximity to those who suffer the results of these crimes invests her with the authority to speak on their behalf with a reasonable knowledge of their own wishes on the subject. And she no doubt suffers in her work; it is not an easy task that she has undertaken. Yet, what her stance also suggests is that none of the rest of us had the same call to authenticity that would allow us to disagree. Her authority established her as a source of knowledge and those that agreed with her could invest in this, and those that disagreed were discredited by it. And that shook me.

It shook me because it implied that there was no need to rebut each of my carefully considered points; my lack of authenticity was proof enough against me. It shook me because it implied that my opinion now, calm, collected and considered over the period of a number of years was somehow less valid than an opinion I might have in a future moment of grief or rage or fear wherein something horrible may have happened to me or those I love. It shook me because it had an undertone of kill or be killed, kill or be afraid, kill or they will come for you; an authenticity that grounded itself on such rage-ridden fear that killing someone could be its only respite.

If a decision to endorse the death penalty locates itself in this incredible fear, then this becomes another reason why I cannot endorse it. I do not think I would want to make my decisions inhabiting a space of terror, though my ability to even attempt this already discloses an incredible privilege.

Hesitance: The Fear and Weight of Intersectional Feminism

Approximately a year ago I began to notice an uptick in articles that were decrying or questioning the nature of intersectional feminism. These articles ranged in their reasons for hesitance: that intersectionality was too academic a term, that its parameters were too broad to be included alongside feminism’s search for equality, that intersectional feminism meant that if you weren’t thinking about every minority or if you were part of a majority, then your word or your efforts weren’t good enough, and more. It was an outpouring of fear from a range of people who were being confronted by their own social and political positions, their own subjectivity, and being threatened with feeling silenced in the face of such a massive undertaking.

At first I was puzzled. At its core, feminism is about egalitarianism. Its system of thought stands in opposition to patriarchy, and patriarchy affects everyone and everything from women, men and trans people, through to race and economics, to language. Feminism is about questioning these structures, and second and third wave feminism had already begun to take into account the fact that a movement needed to occur at multiple levels: as an overarching system, but also as a flexible individualised system that engaged with social, legal, economic, gendered, sexed and linguistic concerns based on the individual’s attempt to gain equality. The single concern was for equality, the amount of effort that would require might vary from individual to individual.

A feminism that didn’t take both these levels into account seemed confusing because it suggested that one minority might choose willingly to maintain and in fact even reinforce a status quo that marginalised another. And yet, it appears inevitable that this occurs because to change these systems requires changing everything we know about ourselves, right down to the structures that we use to define ourselves. And here is where the fear begins: if I cannot know myself, if I cannot define myself in language, in social terms, in relational terms, then I am so indefinable that I cease to exist as a coherent being. And the terror of this makes us back-pedal hastily, throwing ourselves into the fights that we think we can win while obscuring from ourselves the fact that really winning would suggest this incredible loss of self.

It is this terrifying loss of self that intersectional feminism is grounded on. If intersectionality requires that we constantly come face to face with our own privileges, that we consider that our ability to function, to relate, to earn, to speak, all in some manner depend on a set of systems that enforce inequality, implying that some people are more worthy than others, then we have two choices: to attempt to speak from a space that confronts the possibility of this terrifying loss of self, or to refuse this and continue to exist within a system of certain privileges that are doled out in thanks for our compliance in not destabilising the overall status quo.

Moreover, intersectionality is about a staggering array of coinciding categories of repression that lead to a sustained pattern of inequality; to speak within a space that acknowledges this is to speak from a position that has been constantly denied a voice. To engage with Intersectional feminism is to come face to face with the knowledge that intersectionality is a position of constantly enforced silence attempting to find a voice. An ability to speak at all, to be heard and engaged with, already sets us apart from those still within systems of suppression.

Inevitably then, to speak with a feminism that is intersectional is to speak under the weight of an incredible responsibility. The desperate, endless weight that intersectional feminism asks us to endure isn’t simply the necessity of thinking of those who may not be able to speak, but the heavy responsibility that comes along with it: to claim a space that is truly intersectional is to accept the possibility of a loss of self, to speak while claiming to inhabit this space is to attempt to gain voice in the space of an enforced silence, to question that silence. And to do so is also to speak with the knowledge that by speaking on behalf of another person – with or without their consent – means that your voice is their silence in that moment, that they are in the moment of our voicing concern still marginalised, “endured” by the society that we exist within. I don’t wonder that our hands tremble and our knees shake and our throats dry. I don’t wonder that some shy away, terrified of the implied responsibility of questioning every action, every system, every word spoken because everything is complicit, even the language we use.

Much has been said about whether or not those granted privileges can speak for those who are penalised within the same system, questioning whether the authenticity or lack thereof of marginalised experience factors into whether or not someone should be allowed to voice a concern. But this seems like an odd divergence from the point at hand; an authentic experience was never the point to begin with. To be able to speak at all is already to begin to step outside of systems of silence. To give voice to concerns is a privilege, and one that you are asked to constantly question if you wish to write or speak from an intersectional space. The fact that we are confronted by either silence or voices that wished to be heard is to constantly confront our selves and our privilege, to pause before we speak to consider them, to consider the weight of them that we carry: that’s responsibility.

To not hesitate in the face of this undertaking would be foolish. Hesitance is essential to this endeavour. It means that we acknowledge and weigh our concerns, that we choose our language carefully, that we take enough time to acknowledge our responsibilities.

Our legs should tremble. We should be afraid. We should hesitate. And we should try anyway.