Is anything private any more?


What right, if any, do those in positions of power have to privacy? Do insights into people’s private lives help us to judge their character? Can intrusions into people’s privacy be justified in the name of the ‘public good’? Do threats to privacy increase the likelihood of people self-censoring? When social media and reality TV constantly encourage us to share our most intimate experiences and thoughts, have we forgotten what it means to be private? 

Part of the Battle of Ideas Festival
Buy day tickets here


When: Saturday November 2, 10am—11:30am
Where: Auditorium 2, Barbican, London EC2Y 8BN


Joanna Williams: Censorious feminism ultimately backfires

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The frazzled but happy mum, single-handedly putting dinner on the table for her boisterous family, might be an advertising cliché but it’s one we’ll no longer see on our screens. Following lobbying by feminist campaigners, the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) now prohibits gender stereotypes in adverts.

According to the ASA’s chief executive, images of women doing the cleaning or men making a mess of household chores, “reinforce outdated and stereotypical views” and “play their part in driving unfair outcomes for people”. The ban on sexist stereotypes followed the 2015 protests over Protein World’s “beach body ready” adverts and London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s subsequent promise to rid the Tube of adverts presenting “a damaging attitude towards body image”.

Feminism today appears to be more concerned with images than reality. Worse, it risks portraying women as dumb enough to confuse adverts with instructions and so fragile they wilt at the sight of a skinny model. But instead of standing up to these patronising bans and insisting women can cope with adverts, many feminists argue for yet more censorship.

Khan subsequently came under fire for not taking down a different advert from the same company featuring Khloe Kardashian. Transport for London now bans all adverts that don’t promote “body positivity” although how this is defined is not clear. Most recently Heist, a company selling tights through an image of a fit, healthy and — yes — attractive woman dancer, was ordered to cover up the woman’s naked back.

To be a feminist today is, it seems, to support censorship rather than free expression. In the name of feminism university students have banned speakers, advertisements, posters, newspapers and greetings cards as well as, most famously, Robin Thicke’s hit song Blurred Lines from campuses across the UK. The Victorian idea that men will become rapacious at the sight of bare female flesh has been updated with an assumption that girls will develop anorexia if the flesh on display is too skinny. This insults men and patronises women.   

There has always been an uncomfortable relationship between feminism and free expression. Early campaigners fought for women’s rights to education, to work and to vote but many had their roots in the temperance movement and, at times, appeared more concerned with civilising men than liberating women. The sexual liberation of the 1960s and 1970s sat alongside attempts by radical feminists and conservatives alike to ban pornography. Every step of the way, the demand from some women for greater freedom has been met by calls from within feminism for free speech and free expression to be restricted. Today, a censorious strand of feminism is on the ascendancy as feminism increasingly becomes blurred with identity politics.

The notion that words and images inflict not physical but psychic harm on women assumes women are innately vulnerable and have a fragile sense of themselves; it assumes that a woman is not a robust individual so much as an ‘identity’ primarily constructed — and therefore potentially dismantled — through language. Language and images become pinpointed as the source of women’s oppression.

But this censorious feminism ultimately backfires. Women who insist on trigger warnings for literature classes and swoon at the sight of a sexist advert find it difficult to present themselves as strong and powerful at the same time. Ironically, it is often women, even women who define as feminists, who find themselves the target of disinvitation campaigns or have their talks shouted down. Over the past 12 months, notable feminists such as Germaine Greer, Linda Bellos and Julie Bindel have all been no-platformed from UK universities.

Today’s censorious feminism encourages women to see themselves as vulnerable. It promotes a self-infantilisation that sets the clock back on equality. We need a liberation movement that promotes free speech, not censorship.

Joanna Williams is speaking at the Battle of Ideas to launch her new book: Women vs Feminism: Why we all need liberating from the gender wars. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Battle of Ideas 2017″ use_theme_fonts=”yes” link=”|||”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_column_text]A weekend of thought-provoking public debate taking place on 28 and 29 October at the Barbican Centre. Join the main debates or satellite events.[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_column_text]Political activism and protest today
Recent years have seen something of a revitalisation of political protests and marches, but just what is protest historically and today?

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_column_text]Women vs feminism: Do we all need liberating from the gender wars? 
In many ways, it seems there has never been a better time to be a woman. But many women consider themselves disadvantaged and vulnerable.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_column_text]Censorship and identity: Free speech for you but not for me?
Is identity politics the new tool of censorship and, if so, how should we respond?[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][/vc_column][/vc_row]

5 Oct: Does free expression have its limits? (partner event)

Does free expression have its limits? is one of this year’s Battle of Ideas satellite events, produced in collaboration with east London arts charity, Bow Arts.

For many, the removal of the Lord Chamberlain’s right to censor the London stage in 1968 was hailed as a key liberalising moment of the Sixties. Yet in contemporary Britain there exists an uneasy attitude to how we approach offensive art. A year ago, the Barbican was forced by activists to close down an exhibition that was deemed offensive to black minority communities. More recently, the audience booed an ‘offensive’ rape scene in a performance at the Royal Opera House, and, in response, the company modified the scene. In August, popular US rapper Tyler the Creator was refused a visa to enter the UK on the grounds his work ‘encourages violence and the intolerance of homosexuality’ despite making numerous visits in recent years with comparatively little outrage.

For many in the arts world, the limits of free expression can be difficult to understand. Very few instances of overt censorship exist, yet from the closure of controversial 2004 play Behzti onwards, there has been a growing trend of venues and publishers being willing to pre-emptively withdraw or edit work either on health and safety grounds or for fear of causing offence. Exhibit B protestors, like the booing audience at the ROH, argued that they were legitimately expressing their opposition to work they find insulting. Following the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris this year, many proclaimed ‘Je Suis Charlie’ in solidarity with offensive speech; yet there was less outcry when controversial comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala was arrested for expressing sympathy for the murderers and found his work censored by the French state for routines accused of anti-Semitism and racism.

Is artistic freedom under threat from ‘mob rule’ of community activists and noisy Twitter campaigns by the over-sensitive minority? How should artists respond to claims that their work is offensive? Are ‘trigger warnings’ that alert people to something they might want to avoid a solution? Or do they add to a climate of disapprobation where some ideas are seen as ‘out of bounds’? Are the arts themselves a ‘safe space’ to discuss topics and themes we would not tolerate in our day-to-day lives, or does that defence undermine free expression for all? Isn’t it the role of the artist to go beyond the boundaries, to challenge our perceptions and, on occasion, to cause offence?

When: Monday 5th October, 7-8:30pm
Where: Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts Trust, 181 Bow Rd, London E3 2SJ (map)
Tickets: £4.89 through Eventbrite

Speakers include:

  • Dr Wendy Earle — Impact Development Officer, Birkbeck, University of London; convenor, Institute of Ideas Arts and Society Forum
  • Rachael Jolley — Editor, Index on Censorship magazine
  • Anshuman Mondal — Professor of English and Postcolonial Studies, Brunel University London
  • Kunle Olulode — Director, Voice4Change England and creative director Rebop Productions
  • Tom Slater — Deputy editor, Spiked