Free speech is difficult. It should be difficult. After all it protects our right to say things contrary to popular opinion. It protects the minority view. It facilitates debate. It provides the legal framework for protest. It allows people to tell their own stories. Most importantly it moves society on.
It’s why we so desperately need to protect our right to free speech, to cherish it and fight for everybody to be able to use it.
Index was founded to do just that. To cherish the concept of free speech. To expose repressive regimes who were censoring their citizenry and, when necessary, stand up against restrictive practices in our own countries. And for the last 50 years that’s exactly what we’ve done.
What we weren’t established to do was to pick a side on any individual issue that is currently being debated in society. It will surprise none of you that I have quite strong personal opinions on most issues and so does every member of our team, but Index’s job is solely to make sure that other people’s voices can and should be heard if they are being silenced. In the words of Stephen Spender, one of our co-founders, to be a voice for the persecuted.
Which brings me to the current discourse on gender and trans rights. I think we can all agree that this has become increasingly toxic. There is limited constructive dialogue, a huge amount of hate and little meeting in the middle ground to discuss practical ways to come together. Far too many exchanges are now less about the issues themselves, and more about whose side you are on – or even worse, about who has the right to participate in the conversation. The discussion has now switched from one embracing free speech to one of informal censorship.
When we talk about a chilling effect in the public space it is embodied by this issue. Some are genuinely scared to engage in any of the issues for fear of abuse. Members of the trans community, who face daily intimidation and persecution, are rarely being heard at all, as others silence them by claiming to speak for them. This is helping no one.
Index will be launching a new work stream in 2021 to build spaces for dialogue on this subject and others so that people can come together to air issues and find constructive ways forward. But in the interim I want to make it clear what our position is.
All women, whether a successful novelist like JK Rowling or a struggling blogger expressing their gender identity, have a right to their opinions and a right to have those opinions heard.
Death threats, online bullying and attempts to undermine people’s careers are unacceptable. We stand against this censorship. We stand in solidarity with the targets of this abuse and we will fight for their right to be heard.
Trans people face daily persecution and are subject to some of the most appalling abuse in society. Their voices, apart from a few limited exceptions, are not being heard. They have stories to tell but they are being largely censored. We stand in solidarity with them and we will ensure they too have a platform.
These positions aren’t contradictory and they shouldn’t be controversial in the UK in the twenty-first century. As ever Index does and will always stand against censorship.