What precisely does Butler offer when she counsels subversion? She tells us to engage in parodic performances, but she warns us that the dream of escaping altogether from the oppressive structures is just a dream: it is within the oppressive structures that we must find little spaces for resistance, and this resistance cannot hope to change the overall situation. And here lies a dangerous quietism.
If Butler means only to warn us against the dangers of fantasizing an idyllic world in which sex raises no serious problems, she is wise to do so. Yet frequently she goes much further. She suggests that the institutional structures that ensure the marginalization of lesbians and gay men in our society, and the continued inequality of women, will never be changed in a deep way; and so our best hope is to thumb our noses at them, and to find pockets of personal freedom within them. “Called by an injurious name, I come into social being, and because I have a certain inevitable attachment to my existence, because a certain narcissism takes hold of any term that confers existence, I am led to embrace the terms that injure me because they constitute me socially.” In other words: I cannot escape the humiliating structures without ceasing to be, so the best I can do is mock, and use the language of subordination stingingly. In Butler, resistance is always imagined as personal, more or less private, involving no unironic, organized public action for legal or institutional change.
Isn’t this like saying to a slave that the institution of slavery will never change, but you can find ways of mocking it and subverting it, finding your personal freedom within those acts of carefully limited defiance? Yet it is a fact that the institution of slavery can be changed, and was changed–but not by people who took a Butler-like view of the possibilities. It was changed because people did not rest content with parodic performance: they demanded, and to some extent they got, social upheaval. It is also a fact that the institutional structures that shape women’s lives have changed. The law of rape, still defective, has at least improved; the law of sexual harassment exists, where it did not exist before; marriage is no longer regarded as giving men monarchical control over women’s bodies. These things were changed by feminists who would not take parodic performance as their answer, who thought that power, where bad, should, and would, yield before justice.
Butler not only eschews such a hope, she takes pleasure in its impossibility. She finds it exciting to contemplate the alleged immovability of power, and to envisage the ritual subversions of the slave who is convinced that she must remain such. She tells us–this is the central thesis of The Psychic Life of Power–that we all eroticize the power structures that oppress us, and can thus find sexual pleasure only within their confines. It seems to be for that reason that she prefers the sexy acts of parodic subversion to any lasting material or institutional change. Real change would so uproot our psyches that it would make sexual satisfaction impossible. Our libidos are the creation of the bad enslaving forces, and thus necessarily sadomasochistic in structure.
Well, parodic performance is not so bad when you are a powerful tenured academic in a liberal university. But here is where Butler’s focus on the symbolic, her proud neglect of the material side of life, becomes a fatal blindness. For women who are hungry, illiterate, disenfranchised, beaten, raped, it is not sexy or liberating to reenact, however parodically, the conditions of hunger, illiteracy, disenfranchisement, beating, and rape. Such women prefer food, schools, votes, and the integrity of their bodies. I see no reason to believe that they long sadomasochistically for a return to the bad state. If some individuals cannot live without the sexiness of domination, that seems sad, but it is not really our business. But when a major theorist tells women in desperate conditions that life offers them only bondage, she purveys a cruel lie, and a lie that flatters evil by giving it much more power than it actually has.
Excitable Speech, Butler’s most recent book, which provides her analysis of legal controversies involving pornography and hate speech, shows us exactly how far her quietism extends. For she is now willing to say that even where legal change is possible, even where it has already happened, we should wish it away, so as to preserve the space within which the oppressed may enact their sadomasochistic rituals of parody.
As a work on the law of free speech, Excitable Speech is an unconscionably bad book. Butler shows no awareness of the major theoretical accounts of the First Amendment, and no awareness of the wide range of cases such a theory will need to take into consideration. She makes absurd legal claims: for example, she says that the only type of speech that has been held to be unprotected is speech that has been previously defined as conduct rather than speech. (In fact, there are many types of speech, from false or misleading advertising to libelous statements to obscenity as currently defined, which have never been claimed to be action rather than speech, and which are nonetheless denied First Amendment protection.) Butler even claims, mistakenly, that obscenity has been judged to be the equivalent of “fighting words.” It is not that Butler has an argument to back up her novel readings of the wide range of cases of unprotected speech that an account of the First Amendment would need to cover. She just has not noticed that there is this wide range of cases, or that her view is not a widely accepted legal view. Nobody interested in law can take her argument seriously.
But let us extract from Butler’s thin discussion of hate speech and pornography the core of her position. It is this: legal prohibitions of hate speech and pornography are problematic (though in the end she does not clearly oppose them) because they close the space within which the parties injured by that speech can perform their resistance. By this Butler appears to mean that if the offense is dealt with through the legal system, there will be fewer occasions for informal protest; and also, perhaps, that if the offense becomes rarer because of its illegality we will have fewer opportunities to protest its presence.
Well, yes. Law does close those spaces. Hate speech and pornography are extremely complicated subjects on which feminists may reasonably differ. (Still, one should state the contending views precisely: Butler’s account of MacKinnon is less than careful, stating that MacKinnon supports “ordinances against pornography” and suggesting that, despite MacKinnon’s explicit denial, they involve a form of censorship. Nowhere does Butler mention that what MacKinnon actually supports is a civil damage action in which particular women harmed through pornography can sue its makers and its distributors.)
But Butler’s argument has implications well beyond the cases of hate speech and pornography. It would appear to support not just quietism in these areas, but a much more general legal quietism–or, indeed, a radical libertarianism. It goes like this: let us do away with everything from building codes to non-discrimination laws to rape laws, because they close the space within which the injured tenants, the victims of discrimination, the raped women, can perform their resistance. Now, this is not the same argument radical libertarians use to oppose building codes and anti-discrimination laws; even they draw the line at rape. But the conclusions converge.
If Butler should reply that her argument pertains only to speech (and there is no reason given in the text for such a limitation, given the assimilation of harmful speech to conduct), then we can reply in the domain of speech. Let us get rid of laws against false advertising and unlicensed medical advice, for they close the space within which poisoned consumers and mutilated patients can perform their resistance! Again, if Butler does not approve of these extensions, she needs to make an argument that divides her cases from these cases, and it is not clear that her position permits her to make such a distinction.
For Butler, the act of subversion is so riveting, so sexy, that it is a bad dream to think that the world will actually get better. What a bore equality is! No bondage, no delight. In this way, her pessimistic erotic anthropology offers support to an amoral anarchist politics.
Join us in Leeds for a U.K. Launch of The Declaration of Sex Based Rights.
Academic, author and activist Dr. Sheila Jeffreys, sociologist and author Dr. Heather Brunskell-Evans, and lawyer and legal academic Maureen O’Hara will be presenting The Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights, for the first time in the U.K.
The meeting will be Chaired by Sarah Field, Leeds City Councillor for Garforth.
The Declaration re-affirms that women’s human rights are based upon sex.
Our panellists will speak about how the idea of ‘gender identity’ is eroding the notion and practice of women’s rights.
‘Gender identity’ is increasingly being used in an official capacity – for example the ability to change your ‘gender marker’ on the Leeds City Council website, with no checks or documentation.
They’ll explore how the official adoption of gender, as opposed to sex, endangers the rights of women and girl children to safety and dignity, and leads to discrimination against women in areas such as political representation, freedom of speech and association, sports and culture.
Join with women around the world to make a stand to defend our sex based rights, as laid out in the 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified by the U.K. in 1986.
The government will next week confirm the launch date for a UK-wide age block on online pornography as privacy campaigners continue to raise concerns about how websites and age verification companies will use the data they collect.
The plan for implementing the long-delayed age block, which has been beset by technical difficulties, is expected to be announced alongside the government’s other proposals for tackling online content harmful to children, although it could be several months before the system is fully up and running.
The age block will require commercial pornography sites to show that they are taking sufficient steps to verify their users are over 18, such as by uploading a passport or driving licence or by visiting a newsagent to buy a pass only available to adults. Websites which fail to comply risk substantial fines or having their websites banned by all British internet service providers.
Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, said he remained concerned about the prospect of a major data leak as a result of people handing over their personal identification: “It might lead to people being outed. It could also be you’re a teacher with an unusual sexual preference and your pupils get to know that as a result of a leak. It won’t get you sacked for viewing something legal but it could destroy your reputation.”
“Politicians don’t understand that data about their porn preferences might end up in the hands of journalists or others.”
Killock, whose organisation campaigns against state intervention online, said he was particularly worried about the role played by a single company called MindGeek, which owns the vast majority of major pornography sites such as PornHub, and has founded its own age verification company called AgeID: “The problem is you’re giving all your data to the pornographic equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg: ‘This is what I like, this is who I am, and these are all of the sites I’ve visited’.”
AgeID has previously said it believes there is a market of up to 25 millions Britons for its age verification system, suggesting it believes around half of British adults will want to access online pornography through its service.
Its system will require individuals to create an account with their email and password and then upload a passport or driving licence, which will be verified by a third party. If they do not feel comfortable doing this, they can present themselves in person with appropriate ID at a newsagent to buy a so-called “porn pass” for £4.99 per device, with the owner of the shop verifying the age of the purchaser.
James Clark, the director of communications at AgeID, said its method of storing the login and password of verified users meant that “at no point does AgeID have a database of email addresses”, citing external audits of his company’s processes.
“AgeID does not store any personal data input by users during the age verification process, such as name, address, phone number, date of birth. As we do not collect such data, it cannot be leaked, marketed to, or used in any way.”
He claimed that while AgeID could not be used to link viewing data to an individual’s identity, rival age verification companies “may not be so robust” and could be prone to leaks.
Consistently no-platforming people could have a chilling effect on free speech on university campuses and should not take place, according to government guidance.
While student unions are free to choose whether or not to invite individual speakers, placing blanket bans on groups that hold a particular political view is likely to breach English and Welsh free speech laws, according to the guidance released on Saturday.
“Free speech is a value integral to the independence and innovation that embodies the higher education sector in the UK, fuelling academic thought and challenging injustice,” said the universities minister, Chris Skidmore.
The release of the guidance, which was drawn up by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), with help from the National Union of Students, the Home Office and a host of other bodies, comes amid a growing debate over free speech on campuses.
While it makes clear that a student union choosing not to invite a speaker because of their views is permissible, it says they should not ban such people from using their facilities altogether. And universities must not allow student complaints to censor course content. Exceptions are made for speech that breaks the law, including stirring up racial or religious hatred.
It reads: “Any decision about speakers and events should seek to promote and protect the right to freedom of expression.”
The guidance makes clear that people have the right to protest against speakers within the law. But it adds: “Protest should not be allowed to shut down debate or infringe the rights of others.”
QotD: “”(The Vancouver Police Department) will be monitoring and will take appropriate action should conduct breach the Criminal Code”, says a Canadian public library about a feminist speaking about women’s rights”
“(The Vancouver Police Department) will be monitoring and will take appropriate action should conduct breach the Criminal Code”, says a Canadian public library about a feminist speaking about women’s rights.
Today is International Women Human Rights Defenders Day.
Do universities have a broad enough diversity of political opinion? Matthew Flinders, professor of politics at Sheffield University, presents a personal view and asks fellow academics whether the intellectual climate in universities is damagingly constrained by a lack of “viewpoint diversity”.
An essay by a prominent leftwing academic that examines the ethics of socialist revolution has been targeted by a leading university using the government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
Students at the University of Reading have been told to take care when reading an essay by the late Professor Norman Geras, in order to avoid falling foul of Prevent.
Third-year politics undergraduates have been warned not to access it on personal devices, to read it only in a secure setting, and not to leave it lying around where it might be spotted “inadvertently or otherwise, by those who are not prepared to view it”. The alert came after the text was flagged by the university as “sensitive” under the Prevent programme.
The essay, listed as “essential” reading for the university’s Justice and Injustice politics module last year, is titled Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution. Geras was professor emeritus of government at the University of Manchester until his death in 2013. He rejected terrorism but argued that violence could be justified in the case of grave social injustices.
QotD: “Jenni Murray pulls out of Oxford talk after students try to ‘no platform’ her over ‘transphobic’ comments”
Jenni Murray has pulled out of a talk at Oxford University after LGBTQ+ students claimed that she is “transphobic” and attempted to “no platform” her.
The veteran BBC broadcaster and Women’s Hour presenter was due to speak this Saturday at an Oxford History Society event, as part of their “Powerful British Women in History” series of events.
But on Wednesday Murray told the History Society that she is no longer able to attend the event due to “personal reasons”.
Earlier this week, three student groups wrote a joint letter urging their peers to “publicly condemn” Murray’s views and “if possible, cancel the event”.
The LGBTQ+ campaign and Women’s Campaign, both of which are run by Oxford University’s student union, as well as the LGBTQ Society have all signed the letter.
They say that “inviting publically transphobic speakers to the university, without challenge, further marginalises and unnecessarily compromises the welfare of trans students and staff”.
Students claimed that Murray “explicitly transphobic comments” in a newspaper article last year, in which she argued that trans women who have lived as men “with all the privilege that entails” do not have the experience of growing up female.
The students’ letter contains “trigger warnings” for “Terfs”, which stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, and is generally used as a derogatory term to describe those who believe that “identifying” as a woman is not the same as being born a woman.