In praise of Peter Tatchell (but not of identity politics)

by Stephen Tall on February 16, 2016

I suspect if Peter Tatchell and I ever sat down to talk about the economy we’d be poles apart. He’s a far-lefty, I’m not.

But he happens also to be one of my political heroes, a fearless champion of equality, whose bravery in standing up for the human rights of the oppressed around the world is an inspiration. He was my 50th Liberal Hero in my series for CentreForum for supporting free speech and its positive use.

To the NUS’s Fran Cowling, though, he’s a racist and a transphobe (or at the very least an ally of those who are). Plenty of people have already taken down the absurdity of this gross distortion. But it was a paragraph in Brendan O’Neill’s scathing Spectator article that had me nodding most:

The turn against Tatchell speaks to a worrying trend among today’s young radicals: fury with the very people who fought to make their lives freer and easier. … They have disappeared so far up the fundament of identity politics that they bristle at any argument that smacks of universalism, which emphasises the sameness and the shared capacity for autonomy of all human beings.

It’s that divisive aspect of identity politics – the deliberate segregation of society into homogenised groups and sub-groups – which turns me off.

I fully recognise (who couldn’t?) that there are categories of people who have been discriminated against, and too often still are, on the basis of their gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, caste, age, etc. Much has been done to break down these barriers, to move society forward. Much more still needs to be done. I hope an awareness of how this may have impacted on those from such groups is imprinted on all our minds.

But it is an inherently backward-looking and reductive approach. Yes, we’re shaped by our histories. We don’t have to be defined by them, though. Let me put it this way: whose shoes would you prefer to walk in – those of a child from a poor, disadvantaged background with loving and supportive parents; or of a child from a rich, privileged background whose parents neglected and abused them?

Group identities matter, but they aren’t everything. We are individuals with our own unique life experiences, good and bad, which have made us what we are today. And we are individuals with agency, able to re-make our own futures.

The moment we start looking at a person and see only our perception of their group identity, rather than who they are as an individual, we make a hell of an assumption – and lose a bit of our humanity.

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This is not about identity politics. Or it wouldn’t be, except that Peter Tatchell makes it.

This is about white knighting. It’s about refusing to listen to marginalised groups who don’t want “help”. It’s about someone who plays the victim when people fail to show gratitude for uninvited and harmful interventions.

Ultimately, this is about Peter Tatchell trying to destroy anyone who does not worship him unconditionally.

What really happened was not someone taking undue offence at some imagined slight. An invite to speak alongside Peter Tatchell was declined, because the invitee disagreed with his views. This is hardly unusual – many people, myself included, who have seen Tatchell’s anti-free-speech methods, his hypocrisy and his attempts to intervene where his is not wanted share those views.

The response was swift and merciless: Tatchell used every available media outlet to complain he was being silenced and no platformed. To complain that a random person who owes him nothing would not spend time to exchange emails with him email and explain to him exactly why he was wrong. (She may have done, for all I know – Tatchell simply ignores any evidence put in front of him and acts like it wasn’t there) Articles in, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Guardian and even on Newsnight all went on about Peter’s response to this terrible insult. Yet he was never uninvited from any event. The only person being no-platformed was the person who declined the invite. You could say they were no-platforming themselves.

And the only person guilty of publishing this terrible insult is Tatchell himself, taking a private and otherwise unpublished email and using it to destroy the reputation of an activist.

The fury is not about identity politics. It stems from Tatchell misrepresenting event after event to put himself in the best possible light, at the cost of everyone else. It stems from abuse of “free speech” in service of the media elite to mean the ability to arbitrarily demand the time and energy of others.

For those of who have seen this first hand, these accusations are far from absurd. Instead, the uncritical assumption that Tatchell’s views are the only acceptable ones neatly illustrate the terrifying reality: A white cis-gendered man has more power and influence than those they falsely claim to represent.

Stephen, you wrote on twitter earlier that you were sorry that Kav was leaving the party to rid herself of abuse. This – white, cis-gendered men sticking up for each other above the needs of those affected by their actions – is exactly the sort of abuse that drives diverse people away from politics.

by Zoe O'Connell on February 16, 2016 at 6:30 pm. Reply #

God I am so sick of this -the new group to hate – white cis-gendered men. I have been part of one minority group who had to put with shit – gay – now getting more shit thrown at me by haters who like to classify people.
Anyway, having said that, to get back to Mr.Tatchell – the woman SLANDERED him by calling him a racist and transphobic and she offered no evidence and still hasn’t! She didn’t even have the guts to write to him, she wrote to someone else about him and slandered him to them – and he got to hear about it – he has every right to defend his reputation. he is the victim here, not the villain of the piece!

by Glen Hague on February 28, 2016 at 6:22 pm. Reply #

This is really continuing a discussion we started on Twitter Zoe.

Having read through the coverage I don’t see the trashing you detail. I don’t see him saying anything other than he was accused of something in her rejection (which I have read was sent to the organisers).

Neither is she a ‘random person’, she’s an elected official, with all the importance that such an office imbues. To be accused of something by an individual is one thing, to be accused by someone carrying the authority of an office is of a completely different measure.

In the reports I can find I see Tatchell (for whom I carry no torch) only asking as to where the evidence is for the accusations; are you saying that no such accusations were made, because if that’s the case why does the NUS not simply say so and call him out?

I do worry about the practice of refusing to debate with non-threatening people with whom we disagree, it’s a worrying trend which simply closes down arguments, often leaving those in the middle thinking we are afraid to defend our cause, and therefore not really that sure of our arguments.

I do get the WK line, and know from my own experience that unthinking supporters can often be patronising, but I’m not sure this case is of that measure.

As for the reference to Kav, it worries me too, and again seems to be a case of people being to quick to take easy offence from what was a detailed and complex analysis of a well intentioned action, but one that it’s progenitors thought of from only one dimension.

My experience of people being turned of from politics is that it occurs more often when we who are passionate forget those who are not, and neglect to consider what our actions and activities look like to those not involved.

by Mark Platt on February 16, 2016 at 11:46 pm. Reply #

Hi Mark,

No accusations were made – the invite to speak was declined via a private email. No public statement regarding Tatchell was made by anyone prior to Tatchell’s outburst.

As to evidence, Tatchell has been presented with evidence of the harms he causes hundreds of times, but simply ignores them end refuses to engage. In that light, his claims that “no evidence has been presented” are simply not believable, even assuming someone declining an invite privately owes him the time to debate his failings. (I turned the comment here into a blog post on my own site and included a few examples – see

The NUS have issued a short statement but are only marginally involved, because the person invited declined the invite in a private capacity. Understandably, they are not available and don’t want to engage – I’ve seen close to the effects of Tatchell’s rage unleashed on activists who don’t have the same media access he does. The sudden and unexpected wall-to-wall coverage in every media outlet imaginable destroys lives and wrecks people’s mental health.

Tatchell has such a slick media machine and, despite his protestations that he’s pro-free-speech, so quick to denounce people and engage lawyers that the complaints about him just aren’t making it into the mainstream media. Activists are actually *scared* of someone who claims to be an ally. He is very decidedly not non-threatening to anyone with any experience of him.

There’s a semantic argument regarding “Is what Tatchell is doing transphobic/racist or merely annoying”. I wouldn’t use those words myself, but the outcome of his actions are the same regardless of motive and it’s become a largely irrelevant argument. The email was a private one, not intended for publication or circulation. I’m sure a proper press release would have had the relevant amount of nuance applied, but this was not a proper press release.

On the final point, should people debate alongside Tatchell? That’s entirely up to individuals and people shouldn’t be put under pressure to do so. As I understand it, the invitee wasn’t asked to debate *against* Tatchell but instead speak alongside him. Having shared a platform with him in the past before he became quite so bad, I know this can largely be a pointless and frustrating experience as without a very strong chair, he will tend to interrupt the chair and dominate the conversation. (He even did it on Newsnight) Politics is about priorities and deciding what you do and don’t have time and energy to do things about, and it’s entirely unsurprising that busy elected people don’t want to waste their time on him.

by Zoe O'Connell on February 17, 2016 at 9:28 am. Reply #

Hi Zoe,

Thank you, especially for the links, which have given me a much better picture of what’s happened and happening, and which I wasn’t aware of, and would most likely not have found on my own.

I was close to but never involved with Outrage, primarily for some of the reasons you cover; I also have some concerns about it’s new incarnation, which seems to be following a similar, if slightly less personality cultish, direction.

by Mark Platt on February 17, 2016 at 12:40 pm. Reply #

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