As a child (just) of the pre-Internet age I remember as a teenager walking through Hyde Park at the weekend and wandering through the good natured melees that used to congregate at Speaker’s Corner. In the past there were Speakers’ Corners in parks all over London and as long as Hyde Park has been around it has been a place for crowds to congregate with the Chartists using it as a meeting place for workers’ rights demonstrations.
The Parks Regulation Act 1872 enabled the park authorities to supervise public meetings in Hyde Park. Some mistakenly believe that the freedom to say anything at all at Speakers’ Corner is unfettered; this is not so and Public Order Act offences and offences of incitement apply there as much as anywhere. That being said it is exceptionally unusual for a speaker to be arrested at Speaker’s Corner and the police generally adopt a benevolently laissez-faire approach to it.
Marx, Lenin and Orwell are among Speaker’s Corner’s most famous visitors. Even today at the weekends 20 or so speakers are regularly to be found standing on their soapboxes expounding usually on politics or religion, though less so on the other topic that is so frowned upon at dinner parties. The crowds that these speakers draw are not huge but often a few hundred people can be seen listening in approvingly or frowning in disagreement.
One thing which has not changed much since I was a teenager is the scarcity of women speakers. This may be because most women have better things to do than inflict their political opinions on indifferent randomers. Indeed one could reasonably ask what the point now is of Speaker’s Corner if not only for narcissistic self-promotion of the most obvious sort.
It occurred to me on a recent visit that before the Internet encountering women’s voices in public discourse was still very much an exception not the rule. Only a handful of women were in Parliament, there were few women newspaper columnists, almost no editors, few women television and radio presenters, token newsreaders and weather forecasters set aside. Women like 19th century children were seen and not heard. Even by the time I arrived at university and debated at the Union there were always more men speaking than women creating a cock fighting atmosphere in more ways than one.
Of course another reason why women may now be eschewing the chance to wear an anorak in the drizzle in Hyde Park holding forth to milling tourists is that the Internet now allows communication to but, more importantly, with millions. At Speaker’s Corner you might see a bit of heckling but in truth it is not a place for dialogue and conversation but a place of ‘Look at me’ and ‘I am right’.
The role of social media and particularly Twitter in facilitating the Arab Spring is already much commented upon but the thing that I have found so amazing about it is immediate access to discourses and voices which I would never have heard before the Internet. And by discourses and voices I primarily mean women’s voices. One of the dangers of Twitter (other than its boundless capacity to waste time and its incitement to self-promotion) is that users choose the voices they hear. Accordingly mindless, misogynistic racists can choose only to follow like-minded morons in a bid to affirm the commonality of their opinions.
However the regrettable prevalence of trolling suggests that this is not a universal approach to the service. Men can be the victim of trolling but very often it is women who are subjected to vile, personal and threatening abuse. This can be criminal and there is a danger that some women will be dissuaded from participating actively on Twitter. However the very existence of trolling as a phenomenon means that women’s voices are being heard regularly by people who historically would not have heard them which I feel must be a good thing. Furthermore there are millions of users prepared to call out the unacceptability of abusive tweets. Twitter is a community and connection with like-minded people inspires the courage necessary to participate in public discourse.
No longer is having a public voice a privilege conferred only on the few and the vast majority of that few being men. I have learnt so much from Twitter about the lived experiences of women and heard narratives which a generation ago were just not shared with men. Anybody who listens to these experiences could only be acutely conscious that the struggle for equality in society and in the wider world is as fraught, contested and necessary as it ever was. The richness that comes from exposure to plurality of experience cannot be quantified and whatever Twitter’s shortcomings are providing a soapbox for the world has improved all our lives.