Kate Smurthwaite is no champion of free speech

Kate SmurthwaiteCOMMENT: It was wrong to call for Kate Smurthwaite’s gig at Goldsmith’s to be cancelled – but there’s little evidence that Smurthwaite’s own attitude to free speech is any better.

I know I’ve just done a comment post on freedom of speech, but since I decided I was going to write about David Greig’s “Welcome” to the “Fringe” scheme (punctuation mine), another show that’s the subject of censorship came to my attention. It’s Kate Smurthwaite’s The Wrong Sort of Feminist, and this all relates to a stupid incident earlier this year when a gig of hers was cancelled following a feminist protest to have her no platformed. Whether this feminist protest was actually behind the cancellation is a bit a puzzle – Goldsmith’s comedy society claims it was mainly down to poor ticket sales – but Smurthwaite has nonetheless chosen to wear this as a badge of honour and theme her 2015 Edinburgh Fringe show around it.

Frankie Boyle: I think ultimately, you come across as not only being hypocritical, but incompetent and mendacious. Good luck with that. Kate Smuthwaite: aww you sweet man, you knew I wanted a quote for my flyer! ((hugs))
FIGHT! (Full spat here.)

I would probably have taken no notice of this had I not been given one of her flyers. I found her level of self-promotion a little irksome (okay, Edinburgh Fringe publicity has to be self-promotional, but this was a tad too narcissistic for my liking), but that’s not the problem. The problem I really had was the way she used a recent Twitter spat with Frankie Boyle on her flyers, as if a derogatory tweet from him is a second badge of honour. That’s gone one step too far over the hypocrisy line.

The issue is that Smurthwaite’s proudly-publicised nemesis Frankie Boyle has himself been the recent target of a censorship campaign, this one a group who demanded that he be dropped from Féile, a popular comedy festival in West Belfast. And the two cases seem to have a lot in common. Both comedians are controversial and outspoken individuals. Both comedians have said things in the past that have made enemies. And both protests allegedly came from people who had no intention of going to these events but nonetheless wanted to stop other people seeing it.

For what it’s worth, although I have no intention of seeing either performer, I cannot see any grounds to stop them. Frankie Boyle’s only crime is telling jokes that are extremely crass and extremely tasteless, but the simple remedy for tasteless jokes is to not see the comedian telling them. Admittedly, his rant during 2013 Comic Relief was a bit of a dick thing to do, and some of his jokes about non-public figures I felt were a bit off, but 99% of the time it’s not him who’s caused the outrage, but some journalist running a story on what he’s said so that people can be outraged. I have a little more of a problem with Kate Smurthwaite who’s one of these “trans-exclusionary radical feminists”, because the general nastiness that usually comes with this ideology – compounded without horrific suicide rate of trangendered people who are made to feel like don’t belong – conflicts with my values of basic compassion and humanity. But you cannot ban someone from holding an event just because she said something other people found nasty.

(This is a simplification of what Boyle and Smurthwaite are supposed to have done, and anyone wants the defend what they said further is welcome to do so – but the point is that neither of them have done anything that remotely warrants censorship.)

That’s where the similarity ends. Frankie Boyle, it seems, is content to tell his naysayers that his show’s not for them. Kate Smurthwaite, on the other hand, is theming this year’s Edinburgh show around being censored and describes herself as, to use her words, “all new unwilling poster child for free speech”. I’m not sure she can be described as all new or unwilling as she’s participated in pro-fee speech campaigns before, such as this rally, although it’s fair to say that most free speech causes she champions, I actually agree with. I too oppose the censorship of Jesus and Mo, I think the flogging of Saudi bloggers is appalling, and, yes, Smurthwaite is probably correct when she says the one thing a fundamentalists hates more than someone with a well-formed opinion is someone with a well-formed opinion and a vagina (to use her choice words).

But that’s not good enough. Anyone can support freedom of expression for people who agree with them. The challenge is whether you can do what Voltaire did and support freedom of expression for people who don’t agree with. And that’s where Kate Smurthwaite is falling short. In the same rally, she says free speech does not extend to lying corporations or the lying Daily Mail – but “lying” is word used quite subjectively, and normally means “stuff I don’t agree with”. Every tinpot tyrant uses “lies” as an excuse to silence dissident voices. Drivel though the Daily Mail is, the correct response is to challenge their claims and win the argument.

There was an open letter to the Guardian promoting free speech in wake of the Goldsmith’s incident signed by all and sundry, but that wasn’t any better. The examples they gave of censorship were all people in a quite narrow range of political ideologies. They claim that the majority of victims of censorship are feminists and pro-feminist men. Really? They single out the trans and whore lobbies for blame, claiming they shut down views deemed tranphobic or whorephobic – and coincidentally the two areas where Kate Smurthwaite comes under the most criticism. They say that we should consider silencing these views illiberal and undemocratic even if we don’t agree with them – but there’s no sign they offer the same courtesy to views they disagree with.

But the thing that takes the biscuit is Smurthwaite’s decision to put her Twitterspat with Boyle on her flyers. After Boyle’s silly Comic Relief outburst, Smurthwaite gave her opinions on him, and whilst she didn’t expressly say Frankie Boyle shouldn’t be allowed to perform, she came close. She did say that it’s okay for Frankie Boyle to make these sorts of jokes to his mates in the pub – but she was silent on the issue of whether he should be allowed to perform gigs to an audience who’ve to see him and know what to expect. She berated Boyle for going after easy targets, which is a fair criticism, but what jokes did she propose he makes instead? Jokes about the government. In other words, things she would agree with. Hmm. Hmm. Hmm. And now, the fact she’s made such a big thing of Boyle on her flyers suggests she want to appeal to Frankie Boyle haters – at least some of whom will hold the view that he shouldn’t perform.

Now, I don’t like attacking people for things they haven’t said. Piecing things together, it appears that Kate Smurthwaite is supportive of – or at least indifferent to – campaigns such as the one to get Frankie Boyle chucked off Féile, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. And the easiest way for Kate Smurthwaite to prove me wrong is to say “I oppose the campaign to get Frankie Boyle chucked off Féile.” But it’s got to be done wholeheartedly. If her pro-free speech show talks at length about his right to free speech (and not just “I support Frankie Boyle’s right to free speech but …”), fair enough. If she makes an unscheduled appearance next week to speak out against the Féile campaign, fair enough. But begrudgingly accepting this when challenged doesn’t cut it.

Alternatively, if Smurthwaite really despises Boyle so much she cannot bring herself to defend him, there are plenty of other ways she could show she supports free speech for more than just her friends. How about the victims of last year’s censorship campaign, Incubator Theatre? She’s openly on the pro-Palestine side, but that doesn’t mean you can’t believe that Israelis have the same rights to free voices as everyone else. You can bet that someone like Kate Smurthwaite coming out against a cultural boycott would have knocked the wind out of that campaign – but so far she’s been rather quiet. Or if not Incubator, stand up for anyone – that is, anyone where you do not agree with what they say but you will defend to the death their right to say it.

Otherwise, all Kate Smurthwaite is left with is the right for other people to say things she likes to hear. Which is the same as every dictator. Even the men who ordered the flogging of Raif Badawi believe in the right to say things they agree with. That does not make it okay other people to silence her views, at Goldsmith’s or wherever, but when she’s exhibiting this much indifference to people she doesn’t agree with, I don’t see how the rest of us can be expected to shed too many tears for her. Martyrdom might look good on a flyer, but the options remains the same: either support freedom of speech for your enemies and keep your integrity, or only stand up for your friends and look like a hypocrite. The choice is yours.

UPDATE 01/09/15: Five days after posting this, I got a couple of angry-sounding tweets from Kate Smurthwaite about this. I’ve opted for a restrained response that respects the right of reply. Taking them one at a time:

Tweet saying To this, I can only repeat what I said before: this is my best guess based on all the available quotes I could find online. I did a pretty major search for a clear stance one way or the other on Frankie Boyle at Féile (or any gig) and didn’t find one – just ambiguous ones that veered towards pro-censorship (or at least lack of objection). As I said, I’m perfectly happy to be proven wrong on that, and if Kate Smurthwaite did indeed clearly state at this show that she’s opposed to campaigns such as the Féile one, then by all means say so here.

But I must also repeat what I said about this having to be done wholeheartedly. If she really wants the world to know you are just as opposed to censorship of Boyle as she is to censorship of herself, I shouldn’t have to have to turn up to venue 283 at 8.20 p.m. to find out, nor should it take a direct challenge to get an answer. If she wants me to believe she means it, it’s going to take some unprompted defending of her enemies’ rights to settle my doubts.

(This, of course, assumes she’s opposed to censoring Boyle. If, instead, the show involved coming up with justification for censorship because “that’s different” – good luck explaining that one.)

And the other tweet:

Tweet text: also you had better retract your suggestion that I am And that’s a fair grievance, except I didn’t actually say that. I said she came under criticism for being transphobic – which, fairly or unfairly, is the case. It doesn’t help that there’s a lot of anti-trans blogs out there which treat Kate Smurthwaite as one of theirs but make some pretty unpleasant remarks about transgendered people. Nevertheless, I am happy to clarify that I’m not aware of any remarks she has personally made that I would consider transphobic.

Note however, that whilst I don’t consider trans-exclusionary feminism to be transphobic, I still have a big problem with that view. Again, that image is easily scotched, and if she says on public record “I oppose trans-exclusionary feminism” (or, better still, something like “I unreservedly support the right of trans women to participate in feminism to the same degree as cis women”), I will happily retract that too.

UPDATE 02/04/16: There’s been a sudden flurry of pageviews to this article in the last 48 hours, and I’ve just discovered why: something similar has happened at Goldmsith’s again. This time, she did a free ticketed event, and the tickets were deliberately block-booked by protesters who didn’t turn up so that no-one could go either. So I guess that there’s been a lot of Google searches for “Kate Smurthwaite Free Speech”. And since the title of this article wasn’t terrible complimentary, I’m guessing a lot of you aren’t Smurthwaite fans.

But if you want me to join in and stick the boot in, forget it. I don’t know exactly what views these people are protesting against, nor do I know whether she’s actually said these things, but none of that is relevant. Shutting someone down this way is totally unacceptable, whoever it may be. Quite apart from the obvious point I’ve been banging on about that freedom of speech is meaningless if it only applies to your mates, there are lots of small-scale “pay what you decide” shows that depend of free ticketing in order to function. Once we accept this for one person, we legitimise this for everyone, and that’s a big threat to artists everywhere.

I’ll add, though, that Goldsmith’s is notorious for this sort of shameful behaviour, and it wasn’t that long ago that there was an attempt from their Islamic society to shout down a talk from an ex-Muslim to the Atheist society over the way some Muslims treat women and gay men. The student union did not organise that protest, but they sided with them afterwards by demanding a video of the incident be taken down. Here is the video so you can see for yourself the disgraceful behaviour Goldsmith’s SU don’t want you to know about. Most depressingly, Goldsmith’s Feminist society and LGBT society sided against the woman speaking out against religious sexism and homophobia.

I have no idea whether Goldsmith’s Student Union has any culpability in this latest stunt, but I’ll be interested to see their reaction. Their track record makes me believe they implicitly support this sort of thing – again, I’d love to be proven wrong, but it will take me nothing less than a prompt and unreserved condemnation of what’s happened. Whatever your views are on what Kate Smurthwaite says, we need this kind of institutionalised censorship called out before this is normalised and becomes a menace to us all.

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