Dear Michael Portillo: A Challenge to Rape Myths Is Not A Challenge to Free Speech

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”  George Orwell

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Freedom of speech – that is, the right to express an opinion without restraint, or fear of being censored – is something which people value. The fundamental ability to be able to give voice to our individuality, to speak what we think without fear of sanctions, intimidation or threats of violence, and express beliefs however unpopular, is something we all prize.

Given that this is a right that white cis-gendered men have little problem accessing here in the West, and a right that they have indeed taken for granted, the irony of a privileged white man voicing concerns that freedom of speech is under attack because some women have called out a rape myth is.. well, really very unedifying .  As trans* and cis gendered women on the internet know only too well, being able to speak without fear of being targeted by people who have no problem threatening them physically and sexually, and abusing them on the grounds of gender, race and sexuality is still a right which has yet to be acknowledged – let alone accorded.

It was with some degree of self-restraint therefore, that I failed to throw a heavy object through my television last night when Michael Portillo expressed his concern that the BBC had issued an apology in the wake of remarks by Michael Buerke, prior to the transmission of the Moral Maze on Wednesday evening, which discussed whether or not Ched Evans – the convicted rapist who once played football for Sheffield United – should be allowed to return to professional football.  Portillo, it should be noted (who is not on Twitter and probably not aware of the value, worth and effectiveness of online activism), was also on that Moral Maze programme, and his position could be fairly described as being in favour of Ched Evans returning to football.

However it is specifically his remarks at the start of last nights ‘This Week’ programme – on which he is a weekly panellist – that I am addressing.

Essentially Portillo felt that the ‘twittersphere’ (who by implication are some sort of nameless mob) had levered an apology by itimidation from the BBC for Michael Buerke’s remarks, that this was an issue of free speech which the BBC had a duty to preserve, and that these storms of protest acted to limit what people could say.[Note: Once it is available on iPlayer again (for some reason it is currently not available), you will be able to listen to what he says, but I think that what I have given here is a fair summation.]

First – and foremost – the reason that Michael Buerke’s comments caused such upset and were rightly challenged both by individuals and groups such as Rape Crisis and Ending Victimisation and Blame, was because they are well worn, and highly damaging, rape myths which effectively lay the blame for the rape on the behaviour of the victim. In the context of the way in which victims of rape generally – and the woman raped by Ched Evans specifically in this particular instance – face condemnation and judgement because of those myths, challenging comments which were at best insensitive was the right thing to do.

In the context of the torrent of abuse and harassment which family and supporters of Evans have metered out to Evans victim – a woman who may have to change her identity for a second time – this was in no sense an issue of free speech.

Rape silences its victims every day. I would therefore ask Michael Portillo if genuinely believes that there is a ‘right’ to speak an opinion which enables a culture to silence victims of rape? Is he aware that [CN] those who claim to believe in free speech [TW/CN] refuse to accept that rape myths are just that, and do not recognise or understand the damage they do?

In order to live in a world where everyone can be safe and free, and individuals free to speak, there are times where we must understand where our priorities lay – and we must not be afraid to stand by those priorities. The BBC were right to issue an apology.

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