It may not have happened yet, but yesterday’s news of Bristol University Christian Union’s sexist policy on women speakers makes one thing practically certain. As with every other time there’s a story in the news about bigotry (especially sexism), there’ll be someone, somewhere who’ll step forward to defend it. In fact, it’ll most likely be several people, most of whom will give every impression of believing that what they’re doing is really original. You could see it after the blocking of women bishops by the C of E, you could see it when an American shop started selling girls’ t-shirts reading “I’m too pretty for homework”, and I’m pretty sure you’ll see it with this story as well.
The apologists for bigotry don’t actually try to excuse the discrimination as such of course – the people who do this are frequently at pains to emphasise how tolerant and liberal they are personally. What they’ll do instead is emphasise the rights of people and organisations to be bigoted. You’ll often see freedom of speech being invoked, and maybe freedom of association or freedom of conscience for those who are feeling a bit more ambitious. (It would be a cheap shot to point out that these types of arguments tend to be made by people who are at least two out of white, relatively well-off and male, but it’s also true.) In the case of the Bristol Christian Union story, it’ll most likely take the form of someone saying something along the lines of “What’s the problem? It’s not anyone else’s business who a private organisation does or doesn’t invite to speak. If you don’t like their policy on women speakers, don’t join the Christian Union. If a student society wants to ban unmarried women from speaking at their events, so what?” You see, it’s not that bigotry is a good thing – oh heavens no – it’s just that if we do anything to try and prevent bigots from acting out their bigotry then, like, we’re sort of being bigoted as well, yeah?
The reason this is so stupid is categorically not because freedom of speech, of conscience, or of association don’t matter – they do, and of course they should remain protected in law. It’s stupid because it suggests that the moral judgements we make about organisations or other people – and the actions we take as a result – should both begin and end with what’s legal and what isn’t. Changing the law to force student societies not to have sexist policies on inviting speakers would unarguably be a terrible idea with unpleasant civil liberties implications, but it doesn’t follow that nothing should be done about it at all. It would be perfectly appropriate for other Bristol students to sign petitions against the Christian Union for example, or to hold (peaceful) protests outside any of their future talks, or even to campaign for Bristol Students’ Union to ban them from holding or advertising their talks on university property. None of this involves calling for laws which restrict anyone’s civil liberties. What it does involve is campaigning for a bigoted organisation to act in a less bigoted way – which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a good thing because bigotry is harmful. We’re not obliged to remain morally neutral about something just because having a law against it would be a bad idea.