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Tatchell should respect critics’ rights to speak – International open letter condemns intolerance

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(London, February 22) – Peter Tatchell’s actions in bullying and inciting a media furor against a student who criticized him in a private e-mail reflect a disturbing intolerance toward dissenting views, said 116 human rights activists and scholars in an open letter published today. The media coverage of the concocted controversy also feeds a national moral panic over inflated claims of “no-platforming” – a panic that actually contributes to silencing marginal voices.

‘Each generation has a moral panic about the one that follows it,’ said Sarah Brown, UK campaigner for LGBT equality and one of the 116 signatories. ‘Older activists and journalists are bullying a young person in the press, without a right of reply, over opinions expressed in private, all in the name of “free speech”. It seems some folks are short of both moral fibre and a sense of irony — but I’m pretty sure it’s not the young people.’

UK media have attacked Fran Cowling, National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT+ Officer (Women’s Place), for allegedly ‘no-platforming’ Tatchell from a conference on ‘Re-Radicalizing Queers’ held at Canterbury Christchurch University. In fact, however, Cowling simply declined to attend Tatchell’s talk, and expressed this decision in an email to another student. Without permission, the other student forwarded this confidential email chain to Peter Tatchell. Tatchell released the emails to the press, claiming a plot to censor him at the University. Although Tatchell’s talk took place without incident, and he was in no way censored, the massive furor that followed has seen Cowling smeared, bullied, trolled, and harassed in the national press and on social media.

‘It’s unacceptable for Peter Tatchell to use the considerable power and influence at his disposal to publicly shame someone for expressing disagreement with him in private,’ said Rahul Rao, Senior Lecturer in Politics at SOAS, University of London. ‘It’s a bit rich for him to pose as a champion of free speech when he has spared no effort to silence people who have criticized him in the past. When African LGBTI activists have protested against his uninformed involvement in their causes, he has dismissed their critiques as being motivated by petty rivalries. He clearly finds it difficult to engage with and to learn from criticism.’

Tatchell himself has a record of engaging in censorship, and of disrespect for academic freedom. In two cases documented in the letter, he used legal threats to force publishers to pulp academic articles critical of his factual claims or campaigning methods. In addition, he has retaliated harshly against others who write or speak in opposition to aspects of his work. In early 2015, for instance, Tatchell encouraged figures in the right-wing media who vigorously oppose transgender people’s rights to write articles attacking his critics from transgender communities.

‘If you think you are an ally, take criticism,’ said Roz Kaveney, writer, critic, and poet, and longtime advocate for transgender rights. ‘Allies who don’t take criticism get in the way at best. And allies who can’t take criticism display an arrogant sense of superiority.’

In recent years, allegations of ‘no-platforming’ at British universities have multiplied in the media, many of them inaccurate or grossly exaggerated. The letter points out that when celebrity figures drum up outrage with claims they are victims of academic ‘silencing,’ they often get still more publicity. The effect is to marginalise further those whose voices are seldom heard – including trans people, people of colour, sex workers, and other groups.

‘When false claims of “no-platforming” circulate, we need to ask whose interests they serve,’ said Sara N. Ahmed, Director of the Centre for Feminist Research, Goldsmiths, University of London. ‘All too often, it’s the voices critical of power and privilege – such as student activists opposing racism and transphobia – that end up being silenced. It is in this context that we must challenge Peter Tatchell’s leaking of confidential e-mails to defame a student activist. She had every right to refuse to share a platform with him; it did not harm him. In retaliating mercilessly against her and sparking a campaign of harassment, however, Tatchell showed how complaints of “censorship” can serve to censor criticism. Those who claim to be “no-platformed” end up with more platforms. Being “no-platformed” has even become a platform, from which people can speak.’

‘This incident points to a growing tendency to minimise the effects of discrimination on marginalised groups,’ added Alana Lentin, Associate Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University in Australia. ‘Among liberals, for example, “postracial” celebrations of the end of racism are increasingly common, ignoring the persisting dynamics of white supremacy. Often they use the argument of “freedom of speech” to justify racism and to silence its opponents. And often those they silence are people of colour, whose very experience of discrimination is thus both denied — and redoubled. Activists must not use their antiracist credentials to further victimise those for whom racism is reality.’

The 116 signatories to the letter include activists and academics from a wide range of countries, including Argentina, Australia, Canada, Egypt, Guyana, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Slovenia, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States, as well as the United Kingdom.

For more information, please contact: Sara N. Ahmed, Professor in Race and Cultural Studies, Director, Centre for Feminist Research, Goldsmiths, University of London:

Alana Lentin