Barbara Havelková is the Shaw Foundation Fellow in Law at Lincoln College and Faculty of Law, University of Oxford. She teaches EU Law, public law, human rights, comparative equality law and feminist jurisprudence. Her research concentrates on regulation of gender during State Socialism and in post-communist transition in Central Europe. Barbara completed her first degree in law at the Charles University in Prague, and also holds an LL.M. from Europa-Institut of Saarland University and a DPhil from Oxford. Barbara acts as an advisor to the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic on issues of gender and law.
My contribution reflects on the ‘debate’ which took place in the Czech Republic in November 2015, surrounding an exhibition of female nudes in the Library of the Czech Academy of Sciences. It raises issues of voice, speech and silencing, which I discuss in this contribution.
The story started simply. The Library decided to organize a photographic exhibition featuring naked women posing with books during the Week of Science and Technology. Several feminist organizations, including the Czech Gender Expert Chamber, protested against it. They argued that the display had no connection with science or technology, objectified women, and sent the troubling message that women had no place in the academy beyond being decorative. In reaction, the Library decided to discontinue to display.
So far so standard: a public institution made a decision, a relevant part of the public objected for good reasons, and the institution acknowledged its mistake and rectified it. One could see this as a quite ordinary, every-day part of the negotiation of borders of the appropriate and inappropriate in the public sphere. This, however, was not how much of the Czech (male) internet and print media ‘commentariat’ saw it. The photographer’s complaint that his work ended ‘in a safe’ (v trezoru) – a reference to the communist past and its practise of ‘locking up’ art – triggered an outrage. There were three types of comments.
The first compared the feminist organization’s request to totalitarian censorship. One columnist likened the feminist organizations to both the Islamic State and the communist totality of 1950s. Considering the fact that not even a fifth of Czech MPs are women and out of 17 Cabinet ministers, only three are women, we clearly do not live in a female, let alone feminist, totality. But this statement still tells us a lot about social reality – not the one regarding women’s power or speech, but (many) men’s reaction to it. It shows that when women speak at all it triggers an indignant reaction from a privileged and entitled group, who for the longest time had the monopoly on public discourse and also the control over who will participate in it. And now somebody is seen to intrude. Women speaking up is perceived as inherently disturbing and dangerous. When women speak from a feminist position, it is infinitely more so, no matter how underrepresented and marginalized they are in fact.
Second, several male commentators chose to misrepresent the position of the feminist organizations, using hyperbole or irony. One described the situation in the following terms: ‘Members of the Politically Correct Police (Department of Feminist Agenda) stormed the Academy Library with bludgeons, dogs and water cannons’. Another used the slippery slope argument to warn that next thing, these feminists will want to paint over the naked bodies of the goddesses in the Art Nouveau painting of the Judgement of Paris which hangs in the Academy. Of course, the former did not happen and nobody asked for the latter. But again, this approach is telling. Had the commentators merely described the actual demands and reasons the feminist organizations raised, they could not be equally incensed and incendiary. Since the feminists are not terrible enough, it is necessary to (mis)represent them. It is much easier to vanquish a strawman or a caricature than engage with a substantive argument about what might be effects of the repeated visual representation of naked women in the public arena.
Third, aside from the professional opinion-makers, (male) internet commentators showered the feminists with abuse. They were clear as to the sex of the opponents of the exhibition (using vulgar terms for female genitalia), their ugliness and intellectual inferiority (likening them to animals), and their ineligibility for sexual intercourse, presumably with the authors of the comments (using vulgar adjectives). From most of these contributions one can feel the underlying conviction that women should be seen and not heard, or at least not heard sharing their own, ‘different’ opinion. And only some women should be seen: young, beautiful, sexually attractive and naked. Very much like the models photographed in the exhibition.
All these comments illustrate exactly why the feminist organizations found the nudes problematic in the first place. Their point was that if the public sphere is filled with depictions of women merely as decorations or objects for the male gaze, it makes women’s participation in the public sphere more difficult. If they are only valuable when beautiful and desirable, then when they are deemed not to be so, they can be easily dismissed, because those who matter – i.e. men to whom the public sphere belongs – will not be interested in seeing, let alone hearing them.
All of this can be cast as a problem of manners. The commentators can be criticized for failing to do the feminist organizations the courtesy of listening to their actual arguments, taking them seriously, and engaging substantively rather than ad hominem. But this is not just a problem of etiquette, it is a problem of ethics, of right and wrong, of how to treat each other’s speech.
It was the (male) commentators themselves who raised the issue of silencing: the feminists were ‘censors’, they were ‘banning’ the photographs. This resonates with the worries of those, in the Czech Republic and beyond, who see themselves as defending free speech, understood as the ‘right to offend’, against ‘political correctness gone mad’. I submit that the problem of silencing actually goes the other way. The misrepresentation, exaggeration, ridicule and even threating personal attacks levied at women who speak up are the real acts of silencing. They are retributive in the particular instance – women/feminists should regret they ever spoke – and are meant to be preventative for all future instances – women/feminists should think twice before they do it again.
But it can be difficult to conceptualize this type of silencing – by the ones who already have the right of those who do not – as an attack on freedom of speech, because of the historical roots of our understanding freedom of speech, and civil and political rights more generally. The concern for human rights started as the worries of the – already privileged – men that the state would interfere with their autonomy. This ‘negative liberty’ understanding of rights is not concerned with whether one really has autonomy, or the capability to actually make use of a right, in the first place. In the context of speech, this ‘negative liberty’ understanding of rights curbs the state’s potential tendencies to limit or interfere with free speech. But it does not require the state to make sure everyone can actually make use of their right to free speech. Nor does it say much about the – horizontal – situation where one set of individuals systematically silences another.
For the sake of clarity, I speak about two groups: one which has historically always had speech and voice (men), and another which has not (women). I do realize, of course, that there have been many men in history, and are still today, who do not see themselves as privileged, and who have not truly had special access to the media or the world of public debate. I acknowledge that there are other markers of disadvantage, such as class or social origin, which can limit one’s autonomy and ability to make use of rights, including speech. The reason why I nonetheless consider it possible to speak about ‘men’ as a group is that men have one thing in common: they do not have the experience of being silenced because of their sex/gender and in ways that use their sex/gender to denigrate.
The members of the privileged group (men) are used to having free speech and having their voice facilitated and heard. Unlike the unprivileged group (women), men are more likely to be published, their personal characteristics are much less likely to be interrogated and they are less likely to be personally attacked, their arguments are taken seriously whether or not they express anger, etc. While being used to disagreeing among themselves, they do not want the new kind of opposition that comes with the members of the previously excluded group speaking. They do not want to share the privilege of being the ones whose opinions get aired and matter. So they try to bar the access by making the experience of speaking out unpleasant and even threatening. These unprivileged newcomers understandably complain. They want a level playing field. They do not want to be disqualified or pushed out of the public debate by being ridiculed, insulted, or threatened because of their sex/gender. This is at the core of calls for the – so often vilified – political correctness.
The reactions of the privileged may be psychologically understandable: people protect territory which has for the longest time been theirs. But we should see it for what it is. It is a protection of privilege and not the protection of a morally superior claim, let alone of a legal human right.
Does casting this issue as a human rights issue help? The language of human rights brings to mind the law and the state. According to the European Convention on Human Rights, the state is justified in interfering in free speech in a limited set of circumstances. It can do so if it is ‘necessary in a democratic society… for the protection of rights of others’. This is why it is possible to ban and criminalize hate speech. Although this might capture some, more extreme, comments women receive, it does not capture them all. As is often the case, the law leaves the less serious issues to be addressed by other normative systems in society. And we as society can agree and negotiate what, although not legally forbidden or criminal, will be considered wrong. A societal consensus that certain types of speech are beyond the pale and harmful to the quality of the public debate, and can thus be deleted from comment sections, or speakers not invited, is not a violation of freedom of speech. Technically in a legal sense it would not be, because it is horizontal – that is, it is not done by the state. Substantively it would not be, because all it means is that we are preferring a positive understanding of freedom of speech – facilitating everyone’s ability to participate –, over a negative one – merely not interfering with the voices of those who have always held the microphone and shout the loudest.
Power and privilege matter. It is not only possible but also desirable to recognize that there is a difference between a singular offensive statement, man to man, on the one hand, and an advancing front of offensive statements that aims to prevent women from speaking or make them regret it when they do, on the other. There is a difference between insults traded between similarly situated opponents, both of whom already ‘belong’ to a particular arena, on one hand, and between the aggregate damage caused by gender-based, often sexist or misogynistic abuse levied at ‘outsiders’, on the other. Thus, as a society, we can and should acknowledge that existing asymmetries of power and privilege impact access to speech. Brought back to the original story, we need to worry much less about there being one fewer venue when men can look at naked female bodies, and much more about the harm caused by a collective expressive road-block against women’s participation in public debate.
 Anecdotally, see here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/writing-under-a-male-name-makes-you-eight-times-more-likely-to-get-published-one-female-author-finds-10443351.html
An older and shorter version of this contribution was originally published by the Czech broadsheet daily Lidové noviny on 11th November 2015.