VANITY VON GLOW: IN CONVERSATION ON FREE SPEECH AND PERFORMANCE
Updated: Aug 22
SATURDAY 13 OCTOBER, 13:10—13:50, FREE STAGE FESTIVAL ATTRACTIONS
Andrew Doyle - writer and comedian; co-author, Jonathan Pie: off the record
Vanity Von Glow - cabaret performer
On the free stage, the centre piece of The Battle Of Ideas, cabaret performer Vanity Von Glow was interviewed by writer and comedian, Andrew Doyle. At a recent London-based demonstration Vanity accepted a booking to entertain the crowds. Knowing that the demonstration was organised by activist Tommy Robinson, Vanity Von Glow decided that it would be hypocritical to reject a booking simply because she happens to disagree with the political views of many of the audience. Her principles proved costly when her presence was widely criticised on social media; soon after that, Vanity Von Glow was contacted by various other venue organisers who cancelled her future bookings. The crux of the social media invective against her was that Vanity must be a far-right supporter or, worse still, a fascist given her appearance at such an event:
‘While like everyone she has the right to freedom of speech’, wrote one venue, ‘her alignment with such an event calls into question her motives’.
Although Vanity could not be quoted as saying anything political at all, she was condemned for her alignment to another group. In the light of this, it is possible that someone can be criticised, not for something that they said, but for what they are presumed to think based on an appearance at a public event. Vanity’s experience begs the question, can you be found guilty by association to another person? If this is the case, you don’t take responsibility for what you say, but for what those around you say.
In any case, a second point concerns the other people at the protest. Are they entitled to their view? In a free society what are the consequences of protesting, demonstrating or, like Vanity, simply attending an event? Many would say that Vanity dug her own grave by accepting the booking: keep your distance from people with extreme opinions and you won’t be tainted. Such a view abandons the principle of the right to think and say what you wish in public places and engage with those whose views you may find unpleasant. The way to defeat unpleasant views is to challenge them in debate, not avoid dealing with them altogether.
There is a slightly insidious perspective on social media and in wider society at present: we believe in free speech, goes this view, but there are still consequences. It is a big but. There is now a Communications Act (2003) which can criminalise offensive online content. Shouting fire in a public place (knowing there is no fire) can lead to a panic and is therefore illegal. Yet for simply holding a view, that others can take or leave, seems to carry the consequence of losing friends, losing a job and being falsely labelled with a pejorative term like racist. This kind of consequence smacks of censorship.
I asked Vanity about what support she received from her fellow performers, after she was effectively blacklisted. One so-called friend, she claimed, went to the venues and offered her services knowing that Vanity had lost the work. Some friend (Vanity had more colourful language for such behaviour!). The images show Vanity in performance with her striking voice and equally striking costume.
Why is free speech considered a fundamental principle of a democratic society?
Should there be any limits to what people can say?
What is meant by context and why does it matter when deciding what is acceptable or unacceptable?
Why are schools obliged to limit the free speech that would normally be enjoyed elsewhere?
What is the difference between a school and a public place?
Is it right that there is a Communications Act limiting what people can say or present online? Would you repeal it or keep it?
If you are friends with someone, does that say anything about your own views?
Is it better to be friends with people who agree with you or disagree with you?