If everyone has a right to be heard, why are some told to keep quiet?

Julian Baggini
Dec 16, 2020 · 4 min read
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We all have the right to heard, and none have the right to be obeyed.

One of the greatest achievements of the ongoing sexual revolution is that it has given a voice to many who were previously silenced: single parents, victims of abuse, homosexuals, transexuals, sometimes almost the whole of womankind. So it’s concerning to see many people apparently on the progressive side of these developments telling others to button their lips.

This has been especially evident in discussions over trans rights, where anyone who questions the dominant view among advocacy groups is told they should simply listen to trans people’s views, since they know best. Even if this were a sound principle, it is useless in practice because trans people are not all of the same view, not least many of the small minority who have transitioned back to their birth-assigned gender.

For much longer men have found their contributions to some debates around so-called women’s issues unwelcome. For instance, a significant number seem to believe that men have no right to engage a woman in debate over abortion since what a woman does with her own body is entirely her own business. This begs the question because the moral argument over abortion concerns whether the foetus should be considered no more than a part of her own body or a life in its own right. (To put my own cards on the table, I don’t come at this from an anti-abortion stance. I support a woman’s right to choose.)

It’s not difficult to understand how these calls for silence came about. For centuries cisgender, heterosexual (or at least seemingly so) white men have been ruling the roost, telling others how to live their lives without even bothering to consult them. No gender should have dominion over another. All historically oppressed groups are rightly against having the values of their oppressors imposed upon them and no group has a right to tell another what to do. However, the remedy for this should be to give everyone equal voice, not to create new hierarchies of privilege.

This should entail a few asymmetries and cautions. We cannot be naive about the harm that can be done in the name of “merely expressing an opinion”. Within certain power structures, expression can become imposition. Casual workplace misogynist speech by managers, for example, enables discrimination against female colleagues.

Within certain power structures, “merely expressing an opinion” can become imposing it.

One way to help avoid speech becoming a tool of oppression is for people to check their privilege and make extra special effort to give others space to talk, and to listen to them. Second, it makes sense to listen first and most to those most closely connected with the issue at stake. There needs to be an ethics of respect in which the terms of debate recognise that not everyone has as much skin in the game.

The extra step too many take is to say that some people have a special authority to speak because of their sex, gender or sexuality. If by “authority” we simply mean a special insight given by experience, that is unproblematic. But if we mean the ability and right to determine the answers to any disputed issues, that cannot be right.

The idea that only those within sub-groups of society can have a say in how they should behave is absurd and divisive. No one would argue that only peers of the realm can decide the right way for hereditary privilege to be reformed or left alone, for example. Nor would anyone argue that only pedophiles can have views on the ethics of pedophilia.

The absurdity of this position is made plain by considering the principle that only white, cisgender heterosexual men have a right to determine about what is right for them sexually. Imagine that such a man believes that getting someone paralytically drunk in order to get them into bed is acceptable seduction. We can’t just say that’s his ethic and a woman may have another one, because unless we can agree about what is right then we are going to either have innocent people convicted of rape or rapists going unpunished. If such a man does not have the right to last word on his sexual ethics, neither does anyone else.

It would be deeply hypocritical for anyone to say that men cannot participate in the debate about what behaviour is appropriate for women while at the same time allowing women to say all sorts of things about what is appropriate for men, which almost all women are (rightly) prepared to do.

Morality is a negotiation, a social process in which we all work out how best to live and thrive together.

It’s also a red herring to claim that these hot-button issues concern entirely private matters. Abortion is only private if we agree the foetus has no independent rights, living as a trans person is not purely a private matter when it involves using all-female or all-make spaces, and of course no sex is purely private when it involves at least one other person.

Increased unwillingness to let “outsiders” in on moral debates is mistakenly seen as part and parcel of the principle that no one has the right to tell others how to live. True, but that is not how morality works. Morality is a negotiation, a social process in which we all work out how best to live and thrive together. If we are to have a mature sexual ethics then no one should be excluded from the conversation. We all have the right to heard, and none have the right to be obeyed.

This article is part of a series on rethinking the sexual revolution

Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher. His latest book is The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? (Affiliate link)

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