Earlier this week, Brendan O’Neill treated the Spectator’s online readership to a thesis on how Feminism has come to align itself with radical Islamism. Recalling the recent ruckus over the Protein World adverts, O’Neill noted that both Islamists and Feminists have, in recent years, defaced advertisements of scantily clad women in protest: the Islamists against what they deem as salacious; the Feminists against what they deem as body shaming.
If we put aside the lazy conflation of two groups’ ideological aims simply because their forms of protest bear a vague resemblance to each other, we uncover a deeper issue. Rights movements, both historically and contemporarily - and regardless of their aims - are allowed no forms of protest without facing heavy criticism.
If you No Platform, you oppose free speech. Write a blog post and you’re a chronic complainer. Organise a sit-in and you’re a dirty hippie. If you march, you’re a nuisance. If you riot, you’re a thug. If you write graffiti, you’re a radical Islamist.
In his article, by way of illustrating how trivial the protesters are (god forbid those pesky women are still angry now that they have the vote!), O’Neill recalls the 1855 demonstration against the Sunday Trading Bill. Thousands congregated in Hyde Park for the right to get pissed on a Sunday (a far nobler goal than say, wanting to be valued for something other than your body). Today the demonstration is lauded as a triumph of British democracy. At the time, the Morning Post described it as, “A scene, in the highest degree disgraceful and dangerous…[an] outrage on law and decency.”
This is not simply about Feminism. In Baltimore, citizens are rioting over (yet another) murder of a black man by the police, and the media is calling for calm and in many cases criticizing those individuals who choose to riot. I am not for one moment suggesting that an offensive advert and the brutal murder of a young man at the hands of law enforcement are equatable injustices.
Of course one is more severe than the other, which is why one has resulted in riots and the other in a bit of graffiti. But both forms of protest have been widely condemned in the mainstream media. It seems that rights movements today have two options:
1) Pipe down and ride it out until social progress naturally develops over the course of the next few centuries.
2) Protest politely, perhaps in the form of a strongly worded letter.
Remember in 1789 how the French people knocked calmly on the door of the Bastille and asked very nicely for liberal democracy? And how Louis XVI was so moved by their good grace and reason that he immediately abdicated?
Whether or not you find the Protein World adverts unpleasant is beside the point. Defacing an objectifying poster must be regarded as a valid form of political protest. Rioting over police brutality must be regarded as a valid form of political protest. Not all politics takes place in a debating chamber, nor in the columns of a glossy weekly. O’Neill fails to see that all of these acts are expressions of his beloved “free speech”.
If freedom of speech is to be recognised, then it must come hand in hand with freedom to protest. Backlash against an opinion is just as valid as the opinion itself, and if backlash takes the form of vandalism or violence, then it illustrates the strength of those reactionary feelings.
A person has as much right to protest an opinion as another has to voice that opinion in the first place. That’s sort of the point, and it’s part of what makes open debate so exciting. How dare you accuse us of trying to shut it down.
To Brendan O’Neill: You may not agree with what we say, nor how we say it. But for god’s sake defend our right to take a stance.