Saturday, June 22

Paul Thistoll and the problem of non-compliant women

In a contemporary landscape stuffed with maddening ironies, Paul Thistoll proudly parades himself as an advocate for the silenced. Censorship is Thistoll’s weapon of choice, and he is part of a group dedicated to reanimating the government’s unpopular hate speech laws.

Sounds like a right charmer, doesn’t he? It gets worse. Thistoll holds a special antipathy towards feminists, whom he seeks to expel from the public square and, should he eventually get his way, into prison cells if the silly wenches don’t bloody bend.

Listening to Thistoll on the Free Speech Union podcast last week, one could easily imagine him in the mid-70s as a militant Anglican priest, turning stomachs with dandruff peppered shoulders, a far-too-wide mustard tie and unseemly mutton chops, and fervently sermonising against dissenters from his moral orthodoxy. Unwittingly, Thistoll, and those who share his convictions, are fashioning a neo-conservatism while assuring us they represent the vanguard of liberal thought.

I will begrudgingly allow Thistoll a crumb of commendation for appearing on the Free Speech Union Podcast opposite chief executive Jonathan Ayling, however. The pro-censorship set tends to avoid debate on the topic, betraying the fragility of their own convictions. And while Thistoll’s arguments presented a veritable smorgasbord of fallacies to gorge on, I’d like to focus on a particular trope incessantly invoked by Thistoll and others on his side: the notion that many minorities are sidelined from the contest of ideas due to the nefarious specter of hate speech, making more speech no sort of remedy and censorship the only path forward.

This tired refrain, positing that unrestrained free expression undermines democracy, was even promoted by – would you believe – the New Zealand Council of Civil Liberties around the time submissions were being heard on the hate speech laws. I’m here to tell you this is rot and pollutes society with a miserable stereotype of minorities that is more harmful than the short, sharp sting of a vitriolic online comment.

As a member of the Jewish community, I’ve had my own experiences with venomous debates online, some of which, I will freely admit, have become too distressing to endure. At these points I exit, and, possibly block. But such experiences are by no means exclusive to the collection of groups commonly viewed as ‘minorities’. Devout Catholics, evangelical Christians, pro-lifers, and even the rugged Western Auckland scaffolder of Scottish heritage who dared to take a contrary view to a contentious political policy – have all felt the scalding heat of the internet and retreated. To assert otherwise not only paints an inaccurate picture of both the internet, and society, but also casts minorities as inherently frail, and devoid of the fortitude coursing through the hearts of the white, heterosexual majority.

What Thistoll and his cohorts fail to grasp is that the censorship they seek to impose in our names deprives us of the more fervent minority voices yearning to spar, defend, and validate our identities in direct confrontation.

And why wouldn’t we choose this path? Free speech has only served us. Georgina Beyer, a champion of free speech, serves as a testament to the transformative power of rigorous debate. Her indomitable spirit and willingness to lock horns in no-holds-barred discussions advanced the cause of the trans community immeasurably. In stark contrast, the present censorship hysteria, fanned by a certain sect of activists, is walking back her good work. Free speech, as she proved, deradicalised while calls for censorship are radicalising a fringe.

When I said stuffed with ironies, Thistoll’s penchant for hyperbole in the interview showed that a man demanding we all hold our tongues is rather careless with his own. 

At one point he branded Ani O’Brien, a council member of the Free Speech Union, as the “High Priestess of Hatred.” Thistoll justifies his push for censorship on the assumption that only hate motivates his political enemies, which is another way of saying they are not legitimate actors so deserve no acknowledgment nor a reasoned reply. But the sex-based rights they are defending are real, long-established human rights. After admitting to privilege at the start of the interview, you’d think Thistoll would be curious to hear why these women believe these rights currently need defending. But instead, he wants to limit the democracy of such women, by framing them as hateful and trying to install censorship regimes to limit their advocacy.

Not only is this approach diametrically opposed to the tenets of democracy but is also doomed to fail and likely to be catastrophic for the trans community. It is in the interest of both sides that compromise and provisions are arrived at, and only open dialogue can get society to this place.

Listening to Thistoll’s arguments, I struggled to shake off the impression of a reactionary soul opportunistically anchoring himself to a marginalized group to validate his repressive inclinations. In fact, one has to wonder if any of this is about minorities at all. When pressed to delineate the contours of ‘hate’, he faltered, rendering it a malleable entity that conveniently encompasses viewpoints he personally deems unpalatable. After repeatedly opining on the deleterious effects of hate speech on individual dignity he saw no problem in slandering O’Brien. Regarding the dignity thing, one also wonders if he would extend the same magnanimity towards Christian beliefs, suppressing his own dissensions, to grant them an environment of universal concordance. If not, why not? Why the selective empathy, Paul? For every individual has core beliefs, tangled up in their identity that, when questioned, feel like a visceral affront.

A parting thought: Thistoll started the interview by saying he was asked to advocate in this space, as many of his ilk outside of minority groups do. This preceded a truly woeful performance bereft of a single compelling point. I wonder if there is room in the market for a talent agency for ‘allies’ because many groups aren’t being served by the current mob leeching themselves to them.