Controversial figures debate feminism and freedom of speech
A debate featuring controversial public figures Julie Bindel and Milo Yiannopoulos took place Tuesday night in the ballroom of the Michigan League.
During the debate, the two speakers exchanged arguments about feminism, debating whether the feminist movement impedes an individual's freedom of speech.
Hosted by The Michigan Review, the event drew a crowd of several hundred people, some of whom drove across state lines to hear the pair.
Engineering senior Hunter Swogger, one of the event organizers, said the Review wanted to bring Bindel and Yiannopoulos’ voices to the University’s campus in order to expose the campus to new ideas.
“The entire point is to hear prominent people of prominent ideologies come together and speak,” Swogger said.
Yiannopoulos has been the subject of significant criticism for his opinions on individual feminists and feminist ideology, namely his views that feminists invent problems that do not exist — such as campus rape culture and the gender wage gap.
Bindel, who considers herself a second-wave feminist — a movement focused sexuality, family and workplace issues that lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s — has also received criticism for her treatment of modern feminists and the transgender community.
Both Yiannopoulos and Bindel, who are British, have been banned from multiple universities in the United Kingdom due to their views.
In an e-mail interview with The Michigan Daily, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote that Bindel and Yiannopoulos were allowed to participate in the debate on campus because the University strives to allow freedom of speech for all students, including opinions from outside guests.
“The university feels so strongly about this topic that our commitment is codified in an official policy, called a Standard Practice Guide,” Fitzgerald wrote.
The guide states the expression of diverse viewpoints is of utmost importance to the University community because students should both be able to express their opinions and be able to be exposed to new ideas.
In response to the debate, the University’s Spectrum Center — which dedicates its efforts to LGBTQ awareness on campus — offered extended office hours to provide an alternative space for students who felt threatened by the debate.
Engineering freshman Conrad Stoll said he was surprised the center hosted a safe gathering space for members of the LGBTQ community during the debate, since both Yiannopoulos and Bindel are gay.
“I would think that would be good,” Stoll said. “There’s two renowned people who are in the queer community and I was really shocked that the Spectrum Center acted as if they were terrible.”
The Spectrum Center was not immediately available for comment Tuesday evening. A statement on their website reads, “We recognize that the rhetoric of the speakers featured in this event is incredibly harmful to many members of our campus community. The Spectrum Center will be providing a supportive alternative space this evening and holding extended staffed hours until 9 p.m. There will be no program; our intent is to offer a relaxing, positive space for students who want to gather in community.”
During the event, Bindel noted that she was banned from multiple academic institutions following The Guardian’s 2004 publication of her article titled “Gender benders, beware,” which prompted many in the feminist community to label her as transphobic. In the article, Bindel argues that transgender women do not experience the same struggles of being women since they are born as men.
“They decided I should never ever be redeemed,” Bindel said. “All my 35 years of unpaid activism disappeared because I was suddenly a vicious transphobe.”
Bindel said unlike modern-day feminism, her feminism advocates for the prevention of violence against young women and girls.
In his remarks, Yiannopoulos said he thought modern day feminism is dangerous because it silences men, compromising freedom of speech.
“The problem is that the particular modern ground of feminism has a problem with free speech,” Yiannopoulos said. “There’s a particular brand of feminism which holds almost total sway in the media and in gender studies.”
During the debate, the pair touched on several gender equity issues, such as the wage gap between men and women.
Research from multiple sources, such as the federal government’s College Scorecard released last year, has shown a significant gap in pay between men and women in a variety of professions.
Bindel said the wage gap is caused by several factors, one of which is the perception of women in the workplace among their male colleagues.
“Women are punished and they’re treated very harshly for asking directly, assertively, for a pay rise,” she said.
Yiannopoulos countered by claiming the wage gap simply does not exist. He said instead, when women are presented with the same opportunities as men, such as pursuing a degree in the STEM field, they are not as likely to complete their education.
“Women don’t work as hard,” Yiannopoulos said.
LSA senior Andrea Filisko said she came to the debate because she believes there is a real freedom of speech problem on college campuses.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily feminists, but I do think there’s a large amount of censorship of the right of the political spectrum on college campuses,” Filisko said.
Beyond gender, the discussion also considered several other equity issues.
Yiannopoulos applauded when a questioner noted that Michigan institutions of higher education can no longer take race into account during the admissions process due to the 2006 adoption of Proposal 2 in the state.
He charged that affirmative action policies are ineffective because real change to solve educational inequalities must occur at the childhood stage of educational development.
“You improve the quality of teaching, you don’t pretend people are going to deal with a course they can’t,” Yiannopoulos said.
Bindel said she supported affirmative action, since she herself was once an underprivileged student in England but was able to attend a university with the help of state provisions.
“I don’t think that African American people who are given a helping hand to get to university are stupid or have a low IQ,” Bindel said. “I think that they’re just socially disadvantaged.”
Bindel’s statement was met with a round of applause and loud cheering from several spectators.
LSA freshman Olive Scott said she wanted to hear from Yiannopoulos since she identifies as a feminist, an idea he rejects.
“Mainly I just wanted to hear what he had to say and why he believes the things he does,” Scott said.
The event also featured an open mic portion, during which attendees were allowed to share their views on topics discussed during the debate and ask Yiannopoulos and Bindel questions.
During the open mic portion, LSA sophomore Emily Kaufman attempted to climb onto the stage, which incited some audience members to chant GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump’s name repeatedly. Flyers for a University chapter of Students for Trump were on many of the seats in the League preceding the event.
Kaufman said she climbed on the stage to directly challenge Yiannopoulos.
After the event, Swogger said while the things both figures said were controversial, he hoped students realized it was all in good fun.
“They’re mainly just screwing around; they’re mainly just comedians,” he said. “They love making people laugh, they love making each other laugh and they don’t take themselves too seriously.”