Brendan O’Neill: free speech fundamentalist

I write this article as I hear protestors outside Queen’s College chanting “hate speech kills”, “trans rights are human rights” and “take that O’Neill”.

A controversialist libertarian and former Marxist, journalist Brendan O’Neill is unashamedly pro-free speech. He edits online magazine Spiked that focuses on issues related to politics, culture and society. Its writers regularly call for a relaxation in libel and hate speech laws. With a quick Google search, I found numerous articles about free speech issues on campus by O’Neill.

“One of the world’s funniest and fiercest critics of groupthink” – the description of O’Neill by conservative commentator Andrew Bolt features prominently on O’Neill’s personal website. On the other hand, LGBT+ campaigner Peter Tatchell knows him as a “smug shite”. It’s fair to say O’Neill sharply splits opinion.

He has been platformed by Sky News and the BBC, and written for the Guardian, the Spectator, the Telegraph and a range of other journalistic outlets. But the protest I hear outside is one opposing the decision to allow Brendan a platform to speak at the Addison Society dinner. As Queen’s is my own college, issues of free speech on university campuses have never felt so close to home.

The Addison Society, a student-run society at Queen’s that hosts a termly dinner and talk with a speaker, has garnered contention after issuing an invitation to O’Neill. Queen’s JCR Equalities and Welfare team have issued a statement condemning the invite and the Oxford SU LGBTQ+ campaign have demonstrated against O’Neill speaking at the dinner.

My own impression of Queen’s is that it isn’t a particularly political college. I created a poll in the JCR Facebook page which garnered more attention than I initially expected. At the time of writing, 48 students had voted in support of the decision to invite O’Neill, 9 had voted against and 3 were indifferent. It’s important I feel to note students may not have felt comfortable expressing their views in a semi-public poll. As most JCR members didn’t participate in this poll, no valid conclusions can be drawn from this but it is evident at least a sizeable portion of the JCR (around 17% had responded with for or against) care about this issue, regardless of which way they lean.

I caught up with Brendan O’Neill this morning before his talk. We spoke about free speech, sexual consent and transgender issues. The latter issue made up probably half the interview due to the LGBTQ+ Campaign’s involvement in the protest.

I asked him about his initial thoughts when he heard about the condemnation and planned demonstration. Like a true free speech fundamentalist, he expressed support for the right of students to issue condemnations against him and protest his invitation today but highlighted his belief in how “immature and ridiculous” it was. He asserted the statement made against him was “defamatory”.

Spiked tweeted earlier today that a statement issued by the LGBTQ+ Campaign opposing the invitation demonstrated how “intolerant student leaders have become”. I pointed out to O’Neill that surely some lines should be drawn and some types of speech must not be tolerated – it is of course the role of the Queen’s Equalities and Welfare team and the LGTBQ+ Campaign to speak up for the groups they represent and support. I brought up the example of hate speech. However, to my shock, whilst condemning any violence, he expressed his support for the freedom of people to incite hate speech. I type this as I hear protestors outside repeatedly chant “hate speech kills”. He refused to name a single speaker he believed should be no platformed. With an absolute commitment to “no barriers to free speech”, he pointed out that once limits are made on the free speech of extreme individuals, “you’ll find that your own radical ideas are withheld”.

He said the “new idea” that the free speech of some oppresses marginalised groups is a form of “neo-Victorian racial paternalism”

The Joint Committee on Human Rights led by MP Harriet Harman recently found that there is not widespread censorship of debate at universities. Despite this, free speech on campuses has become a contentious topic – has this issue been exaggerated by the media?

O’Neill believes “absolutely not”. He related to me his distrust of politicians and what he believed to be their tendency to minimise the issue. He was, however, opposed to the recent government intervention into the free speech issue on campus by arguing that “authoritarian government is not the solution”. He related a story to me of how he was barred a few years ago from speaking at Oxford University on the pro-choice side of an abortion debate which he said was due to him “being a man”. It was clear he has a personal stake in the ongoing argument.

I posited the question: can we maintain free speech whilst also protecting those at the bottom of society from abuse? O’Neill argued the “new idea” that the free speech of some oppresses marginalised groups is a form of “neo-Victorian racial paternalism” – a phrase, I will admit, I’ve never heard before.

“I would go back in history to look at people like Frederick Douglas… the great anti-slavery abolitionist who himself was a slave and then escaped. He made one of the best arguments ever for freedom of speech in an essay called ‘A Plea for Free Speech’ and he argued that free speech is precisely the tool you need in order to argue against your oppression or your enslavement and in order to establish yourself in the public sphere.

“And that’s the radical tradition I’m interested in – a tradition which treats minority groups as being just as capable as the majority group of engaging in public life.”

His colleague at the Spectator, James Delingpole, wrote an article in Breitbart recently where he referred to those who issued the condemnation of the invitation as “illiterate tossers” and said they probably comprise of “loser undergraduates with blue hair” – is this the kind of discourse O’Neill finds acceptable from professional journalists?

He clarified that whilst he “personally wouldn’t use such language”, he believed journalists should be free to write as they wish.

Of the many, many provocative statements and articles of O’Neill’s I found online whilst digging through Google, I had difficulty in deciding which ones to question him about. For every hot button issue from Islamophobia to feminism, O’Neill has a take on it. After the London Bridge attacks last year, he wrote in Spiked that “criticism of Islam is deemed a mental illness”, arguing that what he perceived to be a culture of protection from criticism of Islam contributed to the terrorist attack. This particularly stood out to me as I’d just read Melanie Phillips’ column today in the Times where she discussed how the accusation of Islamophobia is used to “silence legitimate criticism of the Muslim world”.

In a speech in Sydney in 2015, he argued that feminism in its current form amounted to a “war on women”. He criticises the idea that street harassment is widespread: “… there’s catcalling, wolf-whistling, people who might start a conversation with you. And women can’t cope with that, apparently.”

Something to note – I was surprised when I saw his criticism of ‘men’s rights activists’ as “the saddest people in the world”. Truthfully, I did think he would be a proponent of such a cause but his views are more eclectic than what I had presumed.

Another shocking article I found was one from 2012 titled “If You Were Abused By Jimmy Savile, Maybe You Should Keep It To Yourself” in the Huffington Post. It questioned whether anyone benefitted from the “non-stop parade of Savile’s sad victims across the front pages”.

Of this plethora of issues, I decided to steer the conversation towards another topic particularly relevant on campuses – sexual consent.

I read out to him a statement he made in a Tab interview: “The idea of sex without consent is really annoying. We all know what rape is, a terrible awful crime which should be punished as harshly as possible. But sex without consent is a much broader term which in some cases can even just mean sex while drunk.” Does he not accept then that there is a level of inebriation someone can reach which means they are no longer in the right state of mind to consent?

“Possibly, but I don’t think that is what the sex without consent discussion, particularly on campus, is really about. What it’s really about is this very prudish, anti-sex culture which has grown up within feminism and I am far from the first person to say this.”

He listed Nadine Strossen, Wendy Kallina and Camille Paglia as “brilliant feminist thinkers” that “have been making these arguments for a long time”.

“Feminism has become anti-sex, fearful of sex, and quite Victorian in its approach to sexual matters. The way in which drunk sex in particular is now demonised on campus is really just a way of saying sex is bad and sex must follow the rules otherwise it’s a crime.

“When people talk about inebriated sex and people who are no longer capable of consenting, they are… for the most part talking about women. It’s very rare they are talking about men and in fact, if a man was completely drunk and a woman was completely drunk and they had sex, the man would be held responsible for his actions and the woman wouldn’t be held responsible for her actions. That is straight up sexism.” The last sentence is spoken emphatically.

O’Neill is incorrect when he says in this case only the man would be held responsible. Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that if a person genuinely believes and it is reasonable for them to believe that the other person has consented, it is not an offence.

“The vast majority of the establishment is pro-trans.”

We then arrived at the topic which had inspired the protest by the LGBTQ+ Campaign. I asked him if he accepted a difference between gender and sex.

He didn’t answer me directly: “I simply hold the view that a man cannot become a woman.”

He then clarified his view: “Now this does not mean that I don’t think a man can become a transwoman. Of course, I perfectly accept the existence of transpeople, transwomen… I’m more than happy to use people’s preferred names and their preferred pronouns. I think they should have the right to change their names. I think they should have the right to take hormone treatment. I think they should have the right to have surgery. So this is not me instilling any kind of prohibition on this behaviour or anything like that.

“But the idea that a man can become a woman simply by identifying as such strikes me as a defiance of reality and an elevation of the narcissistic cult of the self to a really strange level and that’s my point of view.

“I’m not in favour of discriminating against trans people. I’m not in favour of stopping them from doing what they want to do or describing themselves however they want to describe themselves. I am simply saying that I as an individual do not accept that men become women. It’s not possible.”

Transgender people make up about 1-2% of the UK population yet its undeniable the media give them a disproportionate amount of attention, particularly right wing media. Can O’Neill not at least sympathise with transgender people who can feel attacked by this vast amount of negative attention?

“No, not at all. I really don’t sympathise.”

“The vast majority of the establishment is pro-trans. I’ve never seen an issue on which the establishment has been so united in support of something. I mean, the Tory party is pro-trans and in fact wants to introduce the most radical pro-trans act of law in history.

He then went on to list sections of the “establishment” that he considered to be pro-trans: “The Church is pro-trans and has said that schools should welcome students who have gender difficulties and accommodate them. The educational establishment is pro-trans. The academic establishment is pro-trans.

“So when I hear trans campaigners compare themselves to gay rights campaigners I think that’s really dreadful and historically illiterate because the gay rights movement never had the backing of the Church for one, very rarely had the backing of the political establishment and was banned in the education sector by Section 28. So it’s incomparable – I think trans has become this stifling new orthodoxy and I support anyone who wants to criticise it and I think they must have the freedom to criticise it.”

I highlighted how the “establishment” were separate to the people trans people encounter every day in their lives.

“But that’s not what we’re talking about. If trans people are encountering harassment or abuse then they need to find a way to deal with that.”

To clarify, Stonewall reported in January that more than a third of all trans people suffered hate crimes in 2017.

He continued: “The preferable way to deal with that is to create a sense of solidarity around themselves, to maybe build up networks to protect themselves. This is what oppressed, marginalised groups have done in the past – they have taken action for themselves to protect themselves in public and so on.

“All I’m saying is the narrative that currently surrounds trans issues which is that this is a radical new gender identity and everyone hates it and wants to oppress it is simply not true. This is something which gets on the front pages of magazines, which has wide cultural validation, which has an extraordinary amount of political validation. It is one of the most boring conformist things you can think today being a trans person is wonderful and interesting. It is an establishment point of view.”

One front page covering these issues saw the headline “The skirt on the drag queen goes swish swish swish: trans classes for kids aged 2”.

I decided to end the interview by asking about the role played by negative media commentary on trans issues – something many would say O’Neill has been part of – in contributing to the harassment of trans individuals.

“I don’t think it does. What trans activists refer to as negative media commentary or abusive commentary, I just don’t see that. If people want to write articles criticising the Labour Party for letting these individuals who are born as men go onto all-women-shortlists, that to my mind is simply critical public commentary and is someone expressing an opinion about a matter of public interest.

“The idea that is harassment of trans people is really just an underhand way of trying to demonise certain ideas and trying to push certain ideas beyond the pale. So the thing that worries me more than the occasional negative commentary that we see about trans people is that such commentary is unacceptable because I find that idea very authoritarian and very intolerant.

“It’s usually about demonising legitimate political opinions on trans issues rather than trying to get rid of actual anti-trans points of view.”

I asked him if he regretted any opinions he had held in the past. He said he wishes he had expressed them differently but could not regret holding any of them.