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In My Experience, It's Not Feminists Who Shut Down Debate

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At the end of last academic year I made the not-so-radical decision to begin socialising at University. So I put myself in the apparently terrifying situation of chuting up the motorway on a coach to Parliament, with a noisy, excited group of people I'd never met before, all of us, left or right, united by enthusiasm for political debate.

After some time staring out the window, a now-graduate member of femsoc struck up conversation. She had interesting, novel policy ideas for fairer gender representation in the media. She had a lovely temperament, making a new scenario less scary to a person for whom Hartley Library is a trusty citadel against The World. Her conversation was engaging and, now studying at LSE, she is patently qualified in thinking.

Strangely, the society President tentatively offered something of an apology for her a few hours later, after she'd gone home. He seemed worried I'd been subjected to an oppressing rant against men, appearing convinced of the idea there's something inherently encroaching about feminism from the mouths of Southampton University women, a frankly unfair, loosely founded assumption in my subsequent experience.

This was less a prejudice on his part than the recycling of a popular but untrue idea, embedded at Southampton. Tittle-tattle says our feminists are intolerant. Perhaps the authoritarian feminists are underground, quietly driving pins in to phallic objects whilst organising their takeover, but my experience of the highly active Femsoc Facebook group is that we're simply people trying to figure out what an activist tradition means to us.

So why is the authoritarian analogy so frequently used by people who've not actually bothered engaging with femsoc beyond whinging about it, or cynically spoiling for a fight so they can affirm their criticisms of feminists? It's an age-old trick to shut down a political agenda you disagree with, by lazily appealing to the lexis of dictatorship. It inevitably portrays your target as awful, undesirable.

But if you level this slander against people simply exploring equality activism, you're decidedly against, not for, reasonable debate and you're on the wrong side of the dichotomy you draw. It's high time misogynists stopped covering themselves in glory. Alternatively, feminists can challenge them without fear and affirm that our agenda is about equal representation and instituting a democracy worth its name.

I've found trying to explore feminism at my university a put-off. This isn't the fault of our feminists, although admittedly I entertained this idea for a while. There's a Bermuda triangle of stereotyping, acrimony and mindless flaming, where feminists struggle towards ground on a perilous ship, which not so mysteriously vanishes when people with weird vendettas tow it to the whirlpool.

The phenomenon of populist student media, commonly called 'Tabs', is a great thing in and of itself. They are snappy, relevant, sometimes funny, and a great way to develop confidence. I owe much of my journalistic development to them because the editors were nice enough to put up with my pretentious prattle.

Nonetheless, these outlets, completely unashamedly, give oxygen to sexist stereotyping, lazily defended with the semantics of free speech by anti-feminists - distinct from non-feminists - who think liberal media should service rather than challenge prejudice. Granted, feminists could spend more time on ripostes, but a prejudice unchallenged is prejudice still.

Any political movement worth time will have its detractors. That's not an apology but a statement of fact. Feminism would be a farcical, dangerous movement if it didn't subject itself to reasonable criticism. But too many graduates of tomorrow, nice and intelligent people don't forget, unthinkingly accept the insidious notion that freedom of speech and criticism means that prejudice parading as debate can cruise down the rapids of public discussion unchallenged.

Unfortunately the free, fair, respectful debate in London, host to different perspectives on equality, is not echoed on campus. The heckling fanfare of people decidedly against equality abrades the mood like crap music funnelled through an empty vessel the size of a Pankhurst statue. Meanwhile, these hecklers daringly but transparently try to steal the mantle of reasonable debate for themselves.

It'd be easy to assume from all this that I've found university a horrible experience, but I've loved meeting new people and contrasting our ideas. Nevertheless, it's incredibly frustrating when, trying to explore a political tradition, a level of misinformation and stereotyping far exceeding that levelled against other unpopular targets at Southampton i.e. arms trade campaigners, environmentalists, etc., strangles and suffocates your best efforts.

To my mind, feminists must accept that 'Lad' culture is not the moral failure of individual men, but the symptom of neo-liberalisation, concurrent with the narrowing of masculinity in popular culture - see FHM - in to something damaging to both genders and their struggle for equality. I'd also like to see more discourse with men who are sceptical about feminism but willing to debate respectfully.

If I'm right that feminism is a forward thinking, democratic movement, the prestige of reasonable debate is ours to claim, but we must be more confident in asserting it.