At present, the relationship between free speech and feminism is not what it should be. This is true not only of the radical fringe of feminist organizations, but increasingly true of mainstream feminism as well. Too many feminists are allowing their understandable frustration at internet ignorance, harassment and the slow pace of progress to justify abandoning the very processes which drive that progress at all. This is particularly troublesome to someone who believes, as I do, that feminism has many important, just, and interesting ideas which will be more rapidly understood by a greater number of people people in an atmosphere that embraces the free and open clash of ideas.
In response to this unfortunate trend, I will describe some of the reasons feminists seem reluctant to embrace unfettered free speech, and then rebut those arguments. I will do this in a series of subsequent posts, published simultaneously and hyper-linked back to this one, so as to keep these rebuttals organized and readable in one sitting. Afterwards, I will outline an ideal relationship between the feminism and free speech that I feel would be more effective at advancing feminist aims than the present relationship.
Before I continue, I should clarify what I mean by free speech. I am NOT referring to the first amendment, or to any legal guarantee. As libertarians like myself are well aware, the bill of rights governs state conduct, quite apart from the private colleges, websites, or organizations which discuss feminist matters. No fundamental rights are at stake here. Feminists should embrace free speech because it is wise and beneficial – not because of any legal requirement.
What I mean by free speech is really a specific subset of speech which I will from here on refer to as “open debate.” Open debate is the energetic clash of opinions between people with many different experiences, viewpoints, and philosophies. This sort of free speech is a principle of intellectual integrity which aids human thinkers, formerly confined by the parameters of their personal experience and intellect, in isolating and evaluating abstract concepts. Socrates called it “elenchus,” a process of arriving at the truth which involves reasoned discussion, and encourages participants to exchange, compare, test, question and defend their beliefs. It goes by many names, but as I told a feminist in my earlier blog post:
“the beauty of it is that over time, after years and years of rational discussion, bad ideas lose and good ideas win. There are fewer segregationists and homophobes today than there were 40 years ago because, in highly-simplified terms, people began realizing that segregation and homophobia are illogical and unjust ideas. To be sure, advancing this discourse is slow and frustrating work: people are stubborn and biased, and the good ideas don't always win right away. But the alternative means of getting what you want, as opposed to changing minds, is using force, and I think most people recognize that has its own downsides and problems.”
To me, and I think to most libertarians, open debate is the heart of social activism. Feminists don’t seem to view it the same way, at least not as it relates to debate between feminists and non-feminists. In all my online travels to date, I have encountered five main arguments upholding the feminist distrust for debate as an agent of social change. These arguments overlap somewhat, and consequently so will my rebuttals, but they generally read as follows. (Again, my rebuttals are long, and so they're hyper-linked to separate posts for readability.)
Feminist Argument #1: Open debate is unproductive because our most frequent adversaries are inflammatory trolls who won’t be convinced.
Feminist Argument #2: Open debate gives undue and excessive voice to privileged classes [in this case, men]. Society is dominated by a media and culture that sees things from the male perspective by default, so men have other podiums from which to be voice their opinions. In fact, most of feminism is already a rebuttal to the male worldview. If feminism is to be a movement for women’s liberation that gets them out from under this culture, it must primarily be a movement in which women speak, and men listen.
Argument #3: Open debate is only productive among people who are equally educated about or familiar with the issues at hand. Some people are more qualified than others to discuss certain matters. When we’re discussing the systematic oppression of certain classes, this includes by default the members the class whose oppression we are discussing, because they can see things from a perspective that privileged people cannot. It is a waste of time for educated or personally affected people to debate those who lack that experience or expertise.”
Argument #4: “Open debate between privileged and underprivileged participants furthers oppression, because it inevitably leads to one side saying things which prop up the patriarchy. Worse yet, open debate risks triggering people who may have deeply personal or traumatic experiences with the subject at hand. For these reasons, open debate is unacceptable in feminist communities, which should instead prioritize the preservation of “safe spaces” for oppressed peoples. These communities should only welcome debate if it takes place under a set of restrictive terms and conditions designed to prevent or minimize these effects.”
Argument #5: Open debate is itself part of the patriarchy, because the veneration of reason and logic as superior means of knowing than emotion is merely a tool to marginalize and ridicule women associated with those traits.