The Privileged Oppressed
Updated: Mar 25, 2019
So for the past week my Twitter timeline has been full of the Cowling vs Tatchell debate. Sorry correction Tatchell vs ___ as as far as I can see Fran Cowling hasn't actually participated in it. For those of you who have not seen this, in summary, Peter Tatchell had been invited to speak at an NUS event. Fran Cowling (NUS LGBT Officer) withdrew from the event stating in an email she did not wish to share a platform with Peter Tatchell. Peter Tatchell (who was still free to speak at the event) proceeded to engage in a week long crusade of tweets, national press articles and interviews to complain about being no platformed (anyone see the irony here?). Fran immediately deleted her twitter account and has made no public statements and Peter later posted statements supporting Fran's right not to debate him.
Now as a fellow 'lifelong LGBT activist' I support much of the work Tatchell has done over the years. I also generally oppose 'no platforming' preferring to defeat opposors in debate. So on a personal level in the same position I would have chosen to debate Tatchell. The emphasis here however is on the word CHOICE, and as such the choice not to engage is an equally valid one. Peter, despite his repeated statements to the contrary, was never 'no platformed', Fran simply chose not to share a platform with him. Her reasons for this really are irrelevent (and she is under no obligation to give any), freedom of speech gives you a right to just that, to speak. It does not compell anyone else to listen or engage.
However this goes beyond an issue of freedom of speech issue. What we have seen over the past week is a man with an incredibly large media platform silence a young woman who doesn't have the same large platform, on the premise of 'I am an oppressed LGBT activist therefore I can say or do no wrong'. The idea being that because you are a member of oppressed group x you can not possibly be speaking from a position of privileged group y.
Privilege is something we all need to acknowledge and something which others have written about better than I probably can. For example, looking at my own experience and point of view, as shown below, while I am a working class, queer woman, I also experience privilege as able bodied, cis-gender, white and (relatively) affluent.
This week's story is far from a rare example. I see a constant stream of feminist posts being hijacked by 'Men's Rights Activists', cisgender heterosexual people being awarded LGBT awards for doing little or nothing for the LGBT community, and a general lack of acknowledgement of the intersectionality of opporessions (e.g. BME and trans* women ignored within feminist / LGBT campaigns).
I believe campaigning for equality is something which affects us all and welcome the support and solidarity of allies. However it is important to recognise the position we are speaking from. Being privileged does not mean that you as an individual have done anything wrong, indeed it may mean you have tools at your disposal to support other groups / campaigns (e.g. a celebrity using their media platform to highlight a cause / campaign). It is just important to recognise your position, 'check your privilege' and be prepared to be challenged. Are you doing / saying something which is genuinely supportive and helpful or are you (albeit possibly inadvertantly) silencing an already marginalised voice?
None of us are perfect and from time to time we will all, as I believe Tachell has this week, get it wrong. As long as we acknowledge and learn from this hopefully we can move forward in a positive direction together. If nothing else this week has opened up discussion regarding privilege and oppression and given others something to consider to avoid repeats of this in other situations.