Is Free Speech Binary?

January 2020

In recent years Freedom of Speech has become a hotly debated topic. Yet, despite an increasing number of reported threats to freedom of speech (e.g. Laframboise, 2019; Mercier, 2019; Hecht, 2019), there are also a number of academic freedom experts (Dea, 2018; Gill, 2019; Moskowitz, 2019; Rangwala, 2019) who deny that we are in a ‘free speech crisis’. I previously argued that some of those who deny there is a free speech problem might feel this way because they have never encountered a problem expressing their own views. However, this hypothesis cannot explain the puzzling differences in content between what is found to be offensive by the thought police and what isn’t.

On the one hand, we have the by now familiar outrage about even the most innocuous forms of expression. For example, one executive of the Ryerson Student Union had to resign because a non-indigenous student performed the song “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s Pocahontas at a campus event (Shepherd, 2019). On the other hand, violence-encouraging tweets from Dr. Rachel McKinnon (Charleston) have been met with little criticism. To the contrary, her notorious 29/03/20019 Tweet saying “… I want them [TERFs] die in a grease fire” (Robertson, 2019) has been widely celebrated among her Twitter and Facebook followers. How can this be? It appears that, at least in part, the issue is not “what is being said” but “who says it”.

Trans-activist McKinnon (who recently changed her social media name to Dr. Veronica Ivy) has a long history of violent outbursts against anyone she smears as TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist). The extensive use of such a slur against an ill-defined but rapidly growing group of fellow academics and members of the public should be reason for concern. Instead of engaging with arguments McKinnon tries to invalidate any position she disagrees with as transphobic. But, seemingly, McKinnon’s status as Trans-activist immunizes her against the kind of criticism that is freely applied to others.

What may have started in academia no longer stays in academia. Recently, more than 20 immigrants to British Columbia were targeted by Trans-activist Jessica Yaniv. Yaniv specifically sought out mostly young, non-Caucasian women, who were offering aesthetician services to female clients. Yaniv attempted to force those women to wax her male genitals. When the women declined to provide services they were not trained to perform or for personal or religious reasons did not feel comfortable providing, Yaniv filed complaints at British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal.

In addition, Yaniv went on numerous racist, xenophobic, and anti-immigration rants on social media. In one series of Tweets, Yaniv called for the deportation of women who had declined to provide the requested service. For example, on May 26, 2019 Yaniv tweeted “No one forced those TRANSPHOBES that may be IMMIGRANTS…into this line of work … They break the law, they should be deported” and on May 28, 2019 “Telling unlawful immigrants … who break our laws that they need to be sent away due to crimes against citizens of Canada isn’t racism, at all…”. In July 2019 “Yaniv was calling for immigration raids on “120th street in Surrey,” an area known to have a lot of residents who are brown and black people with immigrant backgrounds” (Slatz, 2019).

Even though there were regular media reports on Yaniv’s racism and xenophobia, the case was virtually ignored by academics who regularly advocate for an inclusive Canadian society. One has to wonder why. Some might be tempted to argue that the Yaniv case was ignored by academics because Yaniv isn’t an academic. But academics regularly discuss instances of racism or xenophobia outside academia.

For example, on the widely read academic blog The Conversation, W.Y. Alice Chan discussed in detail the implications of Quebec’s Bill 21 and specifically cautioned “When … western [countries] have experienced … hate crimes and white supremacist acts of terror, failing to draw links between interpersonal acts of aggression or violence and larger contexts is negligent” (Chan, 2019). Yet, when Yaniv expressed her xenophobic racism by calling a Sikh man a “turban f*cker” (an incident widely discussed on social media and reported by Drayton, 2019), the academic outrage machine once again remained strangely silent.

Many academics criticized Faith Goldy’s views on immigration even though Goldy is not in the academy. She has been called “white nationalist” (Dea, 2018), “far-right media personality with documented links to white nationalism” (Gosine, 2018), and “alt-right” activist (Budd, 2019) for expressing views that seem less radical than Yaniv’s. Last but not least, Yaniv’s insistence that women touch a penis against their will is in stark contrast to the tenets of the #metoo movement that have been supported by virtually all academics. One commentator pointed out that “the usual defenders of the women who refused to provide Ms Yaniv service have remained silent” (Levitt, 2019).

Levitt speculates that “the usual defenders … [have been] cowed at the altar of transgender rights”. But, given that many Trans-people have distanced themselves from Yaniv and insisted Yaniv is not speaking for them, this explanation seems incorrect. The issue is not transgender rights proper but rather the personal interests of individuals who happen to be Trans and cleverly are using this status. And here we need to return to McKinnon.

Like Yaniv, McKinnon represents a small minority within the Trans-community and most of her recent activism focusses on a right specific to her: the right to participate in elite competitive sports as female. With the ingeniously coined slogan “Sport is a Human Right,” McKinnon makes it appear as if she were the representative of a large group of Trans-athletes. But, if McKinnon’s claim that absolutely no-one would transition to compete in sports is correct, then only a tiny minority of Trans-women will ever benefit from the right McKinnon is fighting for.

It appears that when we discuss transgender rights, we need to listen more to the voices who have been silenced by vocal activists of narrow interests like McKinnon or Yaniv. And, as academics, we need to be able to express disagreement with some of the views of those activists without being dismissed as TERFs or threatened with lawsuits. We need to get better at distinguishing between transphobia and justified criticism of views or behaviours of individuals who happen to be Trans. Last and not least we need to work harder to ensure that living conditions improve for those Trans people who “are denied material necessities of life like health care, housing, and employment” (A.W. Peet, quoted by Dea, 2019).