Julien Blanc. Photo: RSDJulien on Instagram
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Free speech must be defended, but not Julien Blanc’s incitement to violence against women

The American “pick-up artist”, who has been denied entry into the UK by the Home Office, directly promotes violence against women, and therefore forfeits the right to freely spread his ideas.

Pick-up artist Julien Blanc has been denied permission to enter the UK, where he planned to run a series of seminars sharing his “seduction” techniques. For some commenters, Blanc’s case is a free speech issue: unpleasant as his rhetoric is (and everyone seems to agree that his unstinting use of the word “bitch” and crass insistence that anyone with “a fat girlfriend” has failed at life is unpleasant), the government has no business limiting his ability to promulgate. But the issue with Blanc is not one of speech, but of acts. The line where freedom of expression runs out should be a hard and clear one: free speech ends where direct incitement to personal violence begins, and Blanc crosses that line with ease.

In his videos, he prescribes techniques such as “the choke opener” and “just grabbing girls’ heads … head on the dick” for men approaching women – in other words, he instructs his audience to commit acts of violence on women. On his website, he promises to teach his subscribers “how to overcome every single objection she might have when you’re pulling her to sooth her mind, and fuck you the same night”. It’s a prospectus (he calls it the “Pimp Method”) where consent is not even up for discussion.  “There is no such thing as rejection because it’s never over,” he says in one video. There is a word for refusing to accept “no” as an answer to your sexual proposition: the word is rape.

In the UK every year, approximately 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 are sexually assaulted. As few as one in 100 of these crimes may result in a conviction for the rapist. In this context of systemic sexual violence against women, Blanc’s seminars are essentially recruiting rallies for perpetrators. In with all the pseudoscientific flannel about “game” and “zones” and “vibing”, the only reliable principles a follower can learn from Blanc are those of coercion. That’s why it made sense for him to post a picture of the Duluth model (a chart describing different forms of intimate partner abuse) with the caption “may as well be a checklist #howtomakeherstay”.

Clearly, campaigns to deny Blanc access to venues and even the country are no-platforming of the highest order, but Blanc unambiguously merits the tactic. His “coaching” is in fact a series of directions to commit various forms of assault against women, and he has published videos of himself putting his “advice” into action on unsuspecting women. In law, an individual can be refused entry to the UK if “admitting the person may lead to a breach of UK law or public order” or “admitting the person may lead to an offence being committed by someone else”. Given the instructional content of his seminars, and the existence of footage showing Blanc assaulting women in Japan, the legal case for turning Blanc back at the border is clear. More importantly, the moral case for no-platforming him is solid. No-platform was originally a strategy of resistance to fascist speakers whose rhetoric was liable to inspire violence from their followers – and Blanc’s rhetoric amounts to an instructional course on sexual assault.

In an article for the Guardian, Dorian Lynskey positions Blanc as a victim of censorship from a “hashtag hate campaign” along with Dapper Laughs, Stephen Colbert and the installation Exhibit B, and suggests that the appropriate response in all cases would be protest and critique rather than no-platforming. “I worry that Blanc will turn a state ban to his advantage,” writes Lynskey. But it is hard to see why a martyred Blanc is a more dangerous figure than the man who tells his followers to choke women, and it is difficult for a woman to win a debate when her opponent is arm-barring her across the neck. The contentious and provoking deserve protection. But there is no requirement to tolerate speech that unambiguously directs violence, and there is no free speech defence for Julian Blanc.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.