#FreedomOfSpeech as #silencing: #HumanRights #PublicLaw #Irrationality #Alienation #NoPlatforming vs #Bullying!

Freedom of speech as silencing | Race Reflections | 8 March 2020

Freedom of speech

Concerns over the alleged erosion of freedom of speech have dominated social discourses for some time. Many continue to bemoan the ‘undue’ caution dominant groups have been asked to exercise about the words they employ. As a result, arguments in defence of the so called ‘right to offend‘ have taken prominence in society as a way to protect this allegedly threatened ‘freedom of speech’. Uncritical discussions abound. And it can be difficult to take an informed position in the mist of common platitudes and alarmist headlines. Just this week the government announced it would be looking into legislation to help ensure the protection of ‘freedom of speech’ within universities, following the ‘no-platforming’ of Amber Rudd at Oxford University.

Freedom of expression is a human right. Although this right as I have previously argued, is not distributed uniformly in society. It nonetheless is a human right enshrined in UK law. It appears in article 10 of the Human Rights Act (1998) which itself incorporates into the legal system in the UK, the rights contained within the European Convention on Human Rights. Freedom of expression which includes freedom of speech (when such expression is in speech form) concerns the right to express one’s opinions or views, ideas or artistic or scientific creations etc…, the right to protest and, the right to receive information; without interference from the state or government (or those carrying functions on its behalf).

This is important. This means freedom of speech as it was intended as a human right, is about protecting individuals’ expression from the powers of the state and those carrying out public functions. Freedom of expression once more, quite plainly is about protection from state censorship, retaliation, violence and interference.  Freedom of expression is of course far from boundless. Something which also seems to get lost amidst heated political debates and controversies. In fact, after setting up freedom of expression as a human right, the Human Right Act goes on to add at 10.2;

‘the exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary’

In other words in my lay person’s understanding, freedom of expression has always been conditional rather than absolute and subject to various processes, rights and obligations. For example hate speech and incitement to hatred, trumps freedom of expression, speech which puts the health and mental health of others at risk can, at least in theory, be prohibited and, other ethical or moral reasons can curtail our freedom of expression. These restrictions exist to protect ‘public interest’ and the rights of others (and I would say the interests of State as an entity, but, this is conversation for another day).

Epistemic violence and silencing

The idea then that freedom of speech should be unrestrained amidst accusations of silencing is thus an interesting one, which I would says needs much attention, beyond the legal arena. In a previous paper I have referred to silencing as a discursive device with the purpose or effect of smothering unpalatable marginalised voices. Voices which are then purposefully made indecipherable. Such silencing serve various functions. Some functions are psychological such as the denial and repression of painful histories. Others are more structural such as the reproduction of inequality. Regardless of the function, silencing here is thought of as an act that denies the Other the functional use of their voice, thus agency and power. It is an act of violence.

Epistemic violence is ‘a type of violence that seeks to eliminate marginalised subjects’ knowledge. According to Dotson (2011) violence is enacted by denying marginalised voices reciprocity. And this lack of reciprocity is sustained through ignorance, a kind of commitment to misunderstanding or to epistemic incompetence which results in harm namely, damage to the speaker’s ability to give their testimony, to speak or to speak with authority and thus, to be heard. At group level, epistemic violence disappears marginalised forms of knowing and consequently reduces the availability of alternative epistemic perspectives.

Dotson proposes that silencing leads to two main practices of silencing; testimonial quieting and testimonial smothering. Testimonial quieting is in operation when a speaker is denied competence as a knower because they belong to a marginalised group. This, she refers to as an ‘active practice of unknowing’. This practice occurs when voices and knowledge of the marginalised are actively dismissed or discounted because of stereotypes and prejudices. That is to say, in testimonial quieting, marginalised voices are denied credibility and authority to speak because of racism, sexism and/or other systems of oppression.

Testimonial smothering on the other hand, is a form of self-censorship whereby the speaker perceives their interlocutor or audience as either unable or unwilling to understand them. This results in them Dotson say, ‘truncating their testimony’ and only speaking of those aspects of their experience they expect to be met with comprehension. In this case rather than being quietened, the speaker smother their own voice. They sensor their contents, and keep the parts of their experiences or stories they believe may be unsafe to share with particular audiences, to themselves.

Insidious reversing 

Freedom of speech arguments have moved well beyond the state orbit. On social media for example, many seek to defend racist debates and those who calls them out are told they are infringing on freedom of speech and/or that they should learn to tolerate being ‘offended’. But this logic is flawed. Firstly, the notions of ‘the right to offend’ or ‘political correctness’ although, the law may not have caught up, conceals the real and empirically documented psychological and physical harm caused by racist and discriminatory speech. We are, therefore well beyond the offensive and firmly in the domain of the harmful. What is being consequently argued for is not freedom of speech, but at best freedom from the consequences of the harm one causes or at worse, freedom to do harm.

Second, by seeking to bar those directly concerned by the contents of speech who should have in turn no right of retort since expressing opposition, dissent or offence (e.g. accusing one’s expression of being racist) would create…offence, those who find speech harmful or otherwise objectionable are deprived of their right to freedom of expression since they are asked to be quiet. This is thus an act of silencing. Elsewhere I have proposed that silencing may be enacted by individuals with more social power, thus in the context of race white individuals, claiming or believing to be victims of silencing, whereby they may make persecutory claims in relation to individuals of colour by positioning themselves as being gagged, when they are challenged.

Thus, in addition to quieting and smothering, I would propose another practice of silencing which could be called insidious reversing. In insidious reversing, the oppressed is insidiously positioned as the oppressor often covertly or indirectly. The silencer becomes the silenced and therefore the harm marginalised bodies suffer because of their marginalised identity/identities, which they attempt to vocalise as speaker and to conceptualise as knower is invisibilised. It is clouded or replaced by the discomfort the audience experiences in a projective role reversal. This is a distinct epistemic practice of silencing which is widely observable socio-politically and which others have also noted although not named.

Insiduous reversing may be performed through the use of affect. So that in situations where discrimination is alleged a disproportionate amount of time and energy may be spent coddling, reassuring and or placating white people distressed by racism, including accusations of racism made against them, cementing the false equivalencies that already exist between suffering racism and being accused of racism and, depriving the marginalised person of support, of compassion or attention. Insidious reversing thus results in the most socially powerful gaining additional safety and protection against the harm they inflict on the marginalised in a socially sanctioned centring of their hurt feelings associated with their pseudo victimisation.

Insiduous reversing is particularly likely in situations where those constructed as fragile are held to account by someone who belongs to a group constructed or stereotyped as dangerous or aggressive. For example, it has been known that women of colour feel they have to choose their words and demeanour carefully when expressing grievances or speaking of their distress when the perpetrator of such violence is a white woman. The binary positions these identities occupy in terms of strength, vulnerability and innocence render women of colour particularly vulnerable to become positioned as the aggressor in these epistemic exchanges. Thus, in insidious reversing what we make visible and speak of may not necessarily result in testimonial quieting or in the discrediting of one’s testimony and/or in testimonial smothering or in self-silencing, but in accusations of doing the very harm one attempts to speak of epitomising the words of Sara Ahmed, when we speak of a problem, we become the problem.

Concluding thoughts

The practice of silencing people of colour and marginalised bodies generally, their social concerns, and their/our lived experience has a long history. In essence, the current freedom of speech argument demands that accountability, challenge or resistance to speech as violence be quashed. It weaponises freedom of speech to force those expressing dissent or resistance to the violence they experience into compliance and submission. It denies those with less social power not only freedom of speech, but also the right not to suffer discrimination-related harm. As such it amounts to a demand that the social and psychological realities, and lived experience, of people of colour be ignored, an act of epistemic violence. Although appearing to seek freedom to speak, it is in fact an act of silencing, a censorship act. Insiduous reversing is another practice of silencing which attempts to shift the burden of responsibility for social harm from dominant groups to marginalised bodies in epistemic exchanges. It leaves marginalised bodies vulnerable to more violence and further exclusion. In the context of race, it follows a reproduction of wider relational configurations and the traditional direction of power.

Thank you for reading


Also see:

Slammed Doors | Sara Ahmed |   | 17

Colleagues and killjoys,

How can we respond to this time, to this difficult and painful time, to this time in which those who are so much more vulnerable become so much more vulnerable? It is time to take care of each other; to look out for each other. It is always that time, but sometimes we know it, the truth of it. And we know that however compelling this truth, that that is not always what happens, that that is not always how decisions are made. Care is an urgent practical task. The less some are supported, the more they need to be supported. We do what we can, where we can.

All of my own speaking events for the rest of this academic year have been (or will likely be) cancelled or postponed. I will continue to write and to work carefully on my book on complaint, which I can only do because so many people have given me their time, their stories, their complaints, and yes, their care; their care for alternatives; their care not to reproduce worlds that are unjust. Over the next few months I hope to share posts regularly on my blog. The post below is my presentation from an event organised by Katy Sian that took place earlier this month. Please do read Katy’s important book, Navigating Institutional Racism in British Universities. It was a delight and honour to speak alongside Katy and my friend and colleague Heidi Mirza. Please also do read the book Heidi recently edited with Jason Arday Dismantling Race in Higher Education.  Navigating, dismantling; we have so much work to do.

Stay safe, close in heart and spirit. More soon, Sara

Slammed Doors:  Diversity and/as Harassment, Paper presented for Thinking of Leaving: Racism and Discrimination in British Universities Panel, March 6, University of York, by Sara Ahmed

I wanted to start by saying I am not thinking of leaving. I left. And when I left the academy, I am not sure I was thinking about leaving.  I just reached a point when I couldn’t do it anymore, keep quiet about what was going on, going into the departmental meeting room to talk about this or that, the same meeting room in which I first heard from students about the harassment and bullying they’d been subjected to. But I do not want to go over this, what led me to leave; it is still too painful, too difficult. I want instead to use my time to share some research I have done since leaving, research that leaving helped me to do. I resigned in protest about the failure of the institution to deal with sexual harassment as an institutional problem.  I shared the reasons for my resignation on my blog.  I did not disclose much information but I disclosed enough.  I became a leak; drip, drip. The story leaked into the mainstream press, and the university quickly responded in the mode of damage control, using tired old non-performatives: saying how much they did not tolerate sexual harassment; how they had robust procedures and policies; how committed they were to creating a diverse and inclusive environment. If any of this had been remotely true, I would not have had to resign. This will be familiar to students and scholars of colour: we know how universities respond to our complaints about racism by announcing their commitments to diversity.

I don’t want to take any more of our precious time talking about how my former employer used (and still uses) diversity as damage control. Posting about my resignation did something else, something far more important: it helped other people to find me; those who had experiences of making complaints that led them to confront institutions head on and, in some instances, also led them to leave. The research I have been doing on complaint was possible because of this finding.  A leak can be a lead; complaints can be how we find each other. We follow what we find.

In my earlier project on diversity, I noticed how often walls came up. One practitioner described: “it is a banging a head against the brick wall job.”  A job description becomes a wall description.  In my project on complaint, doors keep coming up.  Perhaps we could think of doors as “the master’s tools,” to borrow from Audre Lorde; doors tell us how institutions function, for whom they function; how only some are allowed to enter, how others become trespassers.

No Trespassing

Doors can tell us something not only about who can get in but who can get by or who can get through. After all, when a path is no longer available to us, a door becomes a figure of speech: we say that door is closed. A women of colour academic described her department as a revolving door, “women and minorities” enter, only to head right out again: whoosh, whoosh.

Revolving Door

Getting in can be how we are shown the way out. We can recall here that diversity is often represented as an open door, translated into a tag-line, tag along; tag on: minorities welcome: come in, come in!  One university transformed the “open door” of diversity into a project of attaching photographs of Black and minority ethic staff and students to door panels across the campus. Here BME students and staff are pictured not even as going through the door but as on the door.

Just because they welcome you it does not mean they expect you to turn up. You might turn up and end up on the diversity committee. We often end up on the diversity committee because of whom you are not: not white, not cis, not able-bodied, not man, not straight. The more nots you are the more committees you end up on!  A woman of color academic describes: “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race, they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” Certain words carry a complaint, you just have to say words like race or racism and you’ll be heard as complaining.  A complaint can be how you are received as much as what you send out. She added: “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up on what you are not. A complainer becomes a foreigner, a complaint a confirmation that you are not from here, not really from here.

“Whenever you raise something the response is you are not one of them.” I cannot think of a more helpful description of the problem of becoming the problem. It is not that raising something makes you not one of them. You are already not one of them. Not being one of them is a judgement with consequences: it means being put under scrutiny. As she further describes: “To retain your post you have to be whiter than white. You are not afforded any good will. You have no scope for error. You don’t have any scope for being a bit foggy. The level of scrutiny is so high.” The expression “whiter than white” is telling us something; how whiteness becomes clean, good, pure, yes, but also how people of colour have already failed to be those things even before we get here, or how easily you come to fail, because when you are under scrutiny, anything can be used as evidence of failure, any mistake you make, and we all make mistakes; or anything quirky, irregular, out of place, queer even, can be confirmation not only that you are not from here, but that you are not meant to be here. Sometimes you might try and pass not because you identify with them or wish to be one of them but just because it is safer not to stand out.  I have called this work institutional passing; passing as trying to maximize the distance between you and the figure of the complainer. When passing fails, when you raise something, perhaps you use the word race, although let’s face it, for people of colour turning up is enough to bring race up, you reconfirm a judgement that has already been made.

A complaint about how you do not belong can be used as evidence you do not belong. A student of colour objects to how a lecturer is communicating with her – he is overly intimate. He had sent her an email from a private Hotmail account and suggested they “meet up during this or the next weekend in the evening.” She communicates to him that she founds his style of communication inappropriate. His response: “As for meeting in the evening and its combination with [personal email], this is how we do it here at the department (ask our MA students). Perhaps your department has some other norm which I do not understand. Also, your religion might be a problem.” Note the assertion of “how we do things here” as an answer to a questioning of how he is doing things. Note the interpellation of other students into that assertion. Note the implication that an objection is an expression of a difference in norms. And note how her religion – she is from a Muslim background – is used to explain her objection. When her complaint is explained away, she is explained away.

We often end up having to keep explaining ourselves. A trans student of colour complaints about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. The questions were laced in the language of concern, concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgments that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country; racist judgments are often about the location of danger “over there” (in a brown elsewhere). But when they complain, what happens: “People were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The complaints process can lead to a reiteration of yet more intrusive questions, questions that make the concern right or even into a right; a right to be concerned. So much harassment today is enacted as a right to be concerned; we have a right to be concerned about immigration (as citizens) or we have a right to be concerned about sex-based rights (as “adult human females”). A right to be concerned is how scrutiny is enacted, how the violence of that scrutiny is masked, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

Embodying diversity in making you more visible can make you more vulnerable. A postdoctoral researcher, a woman of colour wanted to make a complaint about racial discrimination. She was hired as part of a diversity programme.  And she knows that the programme is precarious: “I don’t want to do something that is going to threaten a programme that is supposed to diversify the faculty.” Doors can be closed when we are made responsible for opening the door for others. If diversity often ends up being located in students and scholars of colour who are assumed to be here because we bring diversity with us, it can be harder to address the problems we have when we get here, which are not unrelated to the problems we have getting here. She used the term “coercive diversity” for how the university wanted to make use of her body and her research as evidence of its diversity whilst undermining her work as a colleague; as an early career academic; as a human being.

Another woman of colour researcher described how her expertise was used to secure funding for a project on diversity. Once the project was funded, she was shut out. She describes : “If you are a mascot you are silent, everything you are amounts to nothing, you are stuffing, if that, a skeleton with stuffing….I was kept out of the frame of the management structure; I had no control over how the money was spent, who was being employed, who was being invited to the advisory board.” You are stuffing; a skeleton with stuffing. As a symbol of diversity, a mascot, you are supposed to be silent, or perhaps you provide the raw materials, data; the experience, which is converted into theory, by the white academy. What happens when the stuffing speaks? What happens when those who embody diversity can theorize for ourselves? She told me what happens. She documented seventy-two instances of racial and sexual harassment directed toward her because she refused to be silent. Harassment can be the effort to silence those who refuse to comply; harassment can be the attempt to stop you from identifying harassment as harassment, which means the one who identifies harassment as harassment is harassed all the more.

Harassed all the more: a Muslim student of colour does not get the same number of classes to teach that other students do; she does not get the fellowships other students get. She is an international student; she is a mother; she does not have enough to get by. She has to complain to get what she needs: “after I made a complaint against them, I felt all sorts of overt discrimination as If the complaint made everyone free from the mask they used to put on when they were dealing with me before.” Diversity is that mask, when it slips, racism is given freer expression. Note then: a complaint can bring out what a complaint is about. She decides to leave. But she needs the support of the professors. Only two of the professors would write her letters. When she does not into any other programme, she asks to see those letters: “she wrote that ‘I am good at transcribing data’ nothing at all about my research, awards, the paper that I was working with her on, nor about the classes I took with her.” We are back to how some of us become reduced to data.  References too can function as doors, how some gather speed and velocity; how others are slowed down or stopped.

No Trespassing

Note then: power can work through what might seem a light touch: all you need to do to close a door on someone is to write them a less positive reference. This means that: the actions that close doors are not always perceptible to others. A closed door can itself be imperceptible; we can think back to the how diversity is figured as an open door; come in, come in; as if there is nothing stopping anyone from getting in or getting through. Or it might be that the effects of the actions are perceptible but the actions are not: so when someone is stopped, it seems they stopped themselves.

For those who are deemed dependent on doors being opened, those who embody diversity, whose entry is understood as debt, a door can be shut at any point. A door can be shut after you enter. A door can be shut because you enter.  I am talking to a black woman academic. She had been racially harassed and bullied by a white woman colleague:

I think what she wanted to do was to maintain her position as the director, and I was supposed to be some pleb; you know what I mean, she had to be the boss, and I had to be the servant type of thing, that was how her particular version of white supremacy worked, so not just belittling my academic credentials and academic capabilities but also belittling me in front of the students; belittling me in front of administrators.

How do you know it’s about race? That’s a question we often get asked. Racism is how we know it’s about race; that wall, whiteness, or let’s call it what it is, as she has, white supremacy, we come to know intimately as it is what keeps coming up. To belittle someone, to make them little, can function as a command: be little! And that command is being sent not only to her, but to those who are deemed to share the status of being subordinate: students; administrators. She added: “I had put down that I would like to work towards becoming a professor and she just laughed in my face.” That laughter can be the sound of a door slammed. To have got there, a black woman in a white institution, a lecturer, a senior lecturer, on her way to becoming a professor, she is now a professor; is to be understood as getting above your station, above yourself; ahead of yourself.

Some of us in becoming professors become trespassers; you are being told you need permission to enter by being told you do not have permission.

No Trespassing

Closed doors can mean that other people do not hear that laughter; they do not hear that door being slammed. And those who try to stop you from progressing are often the same people who front the institution, perhaps nodding enthusiastically about diversity. Nod, nod, yes, yes, slam. I am listening to an indigenous woman academic. She told me how she could hardly manage to get to campus after a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment from white faculty, including a concerted effort by a senior manager to sabotage her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics. When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay slammed, in your face, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against. Complaints can take us back to histories that are still:

 There is a genealogy of experience, a genealogy of consciousness in my body that is now at this stage traumatised beyond the capacity to go to the university. So there’s a legacy, a genealogy and I haven’t really opened that door too widely as I have been so focused on my experience in the last 7 years.

To be traumatised is to hold a history in a body; you can be easily shattered. There is only so much you can take on because there is only so much you can take in. We can inherit closed doors, trauma can be inherited by being made inaccessible, all that happened that was too hard, too painful to reveal.  Decolonial feminist work, black feminist work; feminist of colour work is often about opening doors;  the door to what came before; colonial as well as patriarchal legacies; harassment as the hardening of that history, a history of who gets to do what; who is deemed entitled to what; who is deemed entitled to whom. A complaint can be necessary: what you have to do to go on. But you still have to work out what you can take on. She went on by taking them on:

I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.

Closing a door can sometimes be a survival strategy; she closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the institution’s door to shut it out, to shut out what she can, who she can.  She takes herself off the door; she depersonalises it. And she pulls down the blinds and she pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because, quite frankly, for her, this is a war.

Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. I am speaking to a Black woman. She had been a Professor; she had been a Dean.  I use the past tense because she is no longer a professor; nor is she a Dean; she was dismissed from her post. The stories we share of becoming professors need to be supplemented by stories of unbecoming professors. The case begins as an administrative dispute. She has evidence that the university did not follow its own procedures.  But the evidence she has becomes evidence of her insubordination. If you don’t back down, a wall comes down. Racism comes up in what comes down. As she describes: “Race and gender are always in there. I thought this has never happened before. The first time it happens is when you have a black woman dean.” Race and gender: they are always in there; in the situations we find ourselves in. If you are not compliant, if you are defiant, they will do what they can to stop you.

How we are stopped is how institutions are reproduced. In order to survive those institutions, we need to transform them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform. Sometimes, we do end up out of it, sometimes we get out; sometimes we are forced out. But if they are trying to shut us up by shutting us out, they have failed.  A complaint is a record we carry with us, we are that record, it is a painful record, no doubt, no question, a shattering; we can be left in pieces not just our careers, but our lives, ourselves. We pick up the pieces.  Perhaps that is what we do for each other, with each other; each piece, however sharp, a fragment that connects us, a story shared.


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