Sophie Wilkinson | Contributing Editor | Wednesday, 30 December 2015

2015: The Year Of Silence

Free Speech And The Power Of Silence: Cutting Through The Noise Of 2015

The Debrief: If you can’t say anything nice, perhaps don’t say it at all

We didn't have to stride too far into January 2015 before we were faced with what came to be known as a violent and extreme attack on free speech. Opening fire on the office floor of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical paper, two balaclava-clad Isis supporters killed 12 writers and cartoonists. Five other people died that day, four of them in an attack on a kosher supermarket, but the resultant hashtag the masses rallied around was #JeSuisCharlie. The lesson - if any - being we should all be willing to stand up for free speech. 

One element of free speech, though, is to be able to say, freely, that while the killings were repugnant and certainly in no way justified, Charlie Hebdo repeatedly punched down in their satire, especially against women, immigrants and Muslims. 

Free speech is what separates our democracy from the evils of Isis, and, indeed, Saudi Arabia, our supposed ally and a country that has sentenced blogger Raif Badawi to 1000 lashes, simply for criticising his government. The sentiment of that oft-misattributed Evelyn Beatrice Hall line: ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it,’ is worthy. But in the past 12 months, I’ve wondered where ‘free speech’ has its limits.

While 2015 saw many break or hold silences to gain or maintain power, the debates over free speech – who has it, who deserves it and what happens when it impinges on another’s rights – roars on louder than ever.

The value of silence

For years, the once-gobby Adele had been in retreat, only quite realising how famous she was when observing her awards in the downstairs loo. But in September, with a song aptly titled Hello, she broke her silence. Later came a record-smashing album. In a world brimming full of popstar overshare, ‘the gap between 21 and [the] appearance of Hello is one of the most punk statements in recent pop memory’, according to pop critic Peter Robinson. The silence has been shattered, of course, as now you can’t go anywhere or do anything without hearing Adele’s – ok, or Justin Bieber’s – album on repeat. But the value of speaking out just at the right moment has shown its importance.

The value of speaking out

It might seem crass to compare Adele’s singing voice to those of the 50+ women who, this year, finally felt safe enough to go public with allegations that they’d been drugged, sexually assaulted and/or raped by comedian Bill Cosby. But we’re dealing with an industry that has long been happy to adulate the performed, sometimes imagined, torment of female entertainers while women on the fringes of the entertainment industry silently struggle through theirs alone. 

Cosby’s success, his voice, his connections, for decades, helped to silenced so many women whom he allegedly groomed. They were his potential ingenues, as he ensnared them with promises of access to the right people, a key to stardom. And for years, he’d got away with it. But not in 2015. It was only when 50 of his accusers appeared together on the cover of the New Yorker Magazine in July that the scale of what Cosby is alleged to have done was really laid out for us to see. His later attempts to re-establish seven of his accusers’ silence via legal counter-suits shows just how tightly he wishes to retain his grip on these women's voices.

A general uptick in speaking out, punching up against perpetrators of sexual assault and the people who have covered them up has continued this year. Ione Wells’ #NotGuilty campaign, founded this year after her assault, and the ongoing work of The Everyday Sexism Project have helped so many more survivors speak out - the number of rape cases reported to police rose by 31% in a year, although conviction rates remain woefully low. 

The women who left Twitter

2015 isn’t the first year that prominent feminists had been bashed and trolled online, but it was this year that many started to get so vocally fed up of it. The ‘voice of a generation’ or ‘a voice, of a generation’ Lena Dunham announced she’d left Twitter. To her, the environment had become: ‘so hostile that it couldn’t possibly be okay for me to be reading this stuff’. Later in the year, fellow feminist Caitlin Moran noted that the once woman-friendly site is now: ‘known as some unregulated Wild West of communication, where you should expect abuse, and be big enough to suck it up’.

Solutions are in sight, though: Twitter has set up a task force to look at the abuse going on on its site. And Jeremy Corbyn has been persuaded to give a crap about his hard-left supports sending images of decapitated children and bomb threats to Labour MPs who voted for airstrikes in Syria. As for Lena? It wasn’t like all the witty bon mots of hers were evaporating into thin air; she funneled hers and her friends’ capacious brains into Lenny, a newsletter for women that’s now been signed up by a major publishing house. The best part? It’s a mailing list, so it feels like a semi-exclusive club, and people can’t get unfoundedly mad at the product, as they literally signed up for it!

There’s value in keeping things on the DL, as both Jeremy Corbyn - who routinely ignores the press when they doorstep him at his home - and David Cameron - who took up Kate Moss’s ‘never complain, never explain’ mantra after pig-gate - might both know. But quiet wasn’t only for people who have become brands in themselves in 2015. Social media used to see young switched onto broadcast mode, permanently. But this year, so many of Snapchat’s capabilities were transposed onto other social media. Younger millennials’ preference for deleting old Instagram posts trickled up towards their older peers, and our reticence to upload phone photos - bar the one perfect shot for Instagram - rendered our ‘Storage Full’ on many an occasion. One huge, nation-changing social media trend which affected the entire UK didn’t even manifest in one single tweet until it was too late.  

For weeks running up to May’s general election, polls showed Ed Miliband and David Cameron neck and neck at 37. UKIP were surging, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the SNP were suddenly on the scene and we were expecting anything in the polls. Anything but an overwhelming victory for the Conservatives. But after the exit polls, it transpired that Tory voters had been amongst us for a while, they’d just not made themselves known. Maybe it’s because London, where so much blabbing goes on, is so lefty. Or maybe people were just reticent to publically admit that they'd aligned themselves with the so-called ‘nasty party’. Regardless, many were so quiet about their voting intentions they’d simply lied to pollsters. Nicknamed ‘shy Tories’, they were the sorts who feel they’d get flack if they admitted their voting intentions, but felt that economic stability could only be provided by David Cameron and his party.

Regardless of your political allegiances, the shy Tories might have one thing right - silence can sometimes be a necessary retreat from the world’s hubbub. It’s not just the mindfulness movement that has taught us the importance of switching off, or simply just listening, but the various controversies within the student activist movement.

No Platforming 

Ever since young people started paying exorbitant student fees to attend uni, they’ve wanted more say over what happens in the campus they call home for three years. It makes sense; you’re paying like a customer, so you should be treated like a customer. With minority groups given louder voices and the ability to organise faster via social media, and otherwise outsiders seeing the joy in advocacy, there has been a surge in social consciousness. 

As part of this, there have been regular attempts - some successful - to no-platform certain speakers coming to universities. The argument, e-petition or campaign normally goes like this: a maligned group that is inadequately supported on campus sees someone invited to their uni. This person has views that directly threaten their happiness/deny their existence. The marginalised group, along with its allies, then seek to ban that person from the campus. Regardless of whether that person has caused harm to specific groups, or merely holds an opinion contrary to that maligned group, ‘free speech’ will be brought up by whoever decides to defend this controversial character. 

In any other decade, these scuffles would remain on-campus as tetchiness between debating societies and equalities reps. But in a social media age, attempts to no-platform speakers, things work differenly. As soon as Twitter, Facebook, online news and the BBC gets wind of something newsworthy happening to a controversial, even hateful and high profile figure, who’s known for their oratory skills, they’re given the opportunity to speak out louder than before. The microphone’s been snatched away, sure, but only to be replaced by a barrel-sized megaphone. Cardiff University students’ attempts to keep Germaine Greer off of campus because of her views on trans women - may have been valiant. But they’re outdated. By even attempting to ban a feminist known the world over, (she pulled out before she could be banned) she was given an even bigger platform to spout her views about trans people AND frame herself as the victim. 

One student furore which didn’t quite play out this way was the case of Bahar Mustafa, a Goldsmiths Equality Rep faced with court charges after reports of tweeting #KillAllWhiteMen. This tweet had been dug up after she had deliberately refused white men entry to one talk specifically for minority groups. White men were invited to a later event, but the picture of fake-crying Bahar next to a poster saying ‘no white men’ and a picture of ‘male tears’ was enough for so many. It was unprofessional, sure, but a vote held within the university found she was fit to remain in her role. However, a external petition - whose co-signatories outnumbered the student body of Goldsmiths, including many people who’d never set foot in Goldsmiths - called for her to be removed on the basis of her alleged racism and sexism.

Their wish sort of came true. After months of receiving death threats, rape threats and press intrusion, Bahar resigned from her role. One has to wonder who really overstepped the line of free speech - her, for ironic tweeting in-jokes and a supposed threat obviously impossible to enact? Or those who sought to remove her from an elected post her students voted for her to keep?

As 2016 rolls around, and the US election and the EU referendum bring us more of Donald Trump’s racism and a return of Nigel Farage’s xenophobia, the cacophony of chatter around free speech will only rise. But if we can learn anything from this year? It’s that, beyond holding to account those who’ll routinely try to stamp our voices, if you can’t say anything nice, perhaps don’t say it at all. It worked for Zayn Malik, didn’t it?

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Follow Sophie on Twitter: @SophWilkinson