freedomofspeech

Tamzin

My boyfriend and I signed up to a workaway project in Peru. The website described the place as a permaculture-based community, but we found it was land and buildings belonging to one man aged around sixty, with volunteers working five hours a day in exchange for basic food and a dorm bed – a pretty normal workaway deal in terms of exchange, but not the Peruvian-focused community we were expecting. On our first day there another volunteer, man in his mid-forties from San Francisco, turned up after an all night ‘peyote ceremony’. Wearing classic ‘new-ager in Peru’ gear he spoke about having been ‘re-born’ in his experience. A little later, the conversation turned to his opinions on the ‘modesty’ of women. His opening line was ‘I think it’s great that women here dress more modestly than women back home.’ In my head, I thought – ‘Oh great, you’ve been re-born a chauvinist’ but I didn’t say it. I knew though, that I would not be able to sit through this conversation without saying anything, but was confused as to what he meant by ‘the women here.’ I asked: ‘ Do you mean women wearing traditional Andean dress?’ to which he replied no, he was talking about the ‘new age’ foreign women of whom there are many in a nearby town. For him, clearly, Peruvian women did not register as ‘the women here.’ I should’ve pointed out the racism and dehumanization inherent in his statement, but I didn’t (retrospect is a fine thing). What I did try to do was unpick why he thought he had a right to make statements about the modesty of women’s dress. He said ‘all the men I’ve ever spoken to prefer women dressing modestly’ and ‘I tell women in San Francisco, no man’s going to fall in love with you if you dress like that.’ I can’t remember exactly what I said in response, I just tried. He was so angry to be challenged, claiming his right ‘to have a preference’ and becoming quite malicious, saying I was ‘full of shit’ and that he understood ‘I had issues around this topic.’ There was one other young, female volunteer, a friend of his, who tried to tell me ‘he didn’t mean it in a bad way’ and then left the room. My boyfriend came in, and tried to mediate but I was shaking by that point and suggested we end the conversation as it was un-constructive. We decided later that day, based on this argument and the disappointment in the workaway placement, to leave. We went to see Michael, the boss man who owned the place, our reasons for leaving. He was very angry that we wanted to leave (he’d planned to have a ‘full labour force’ that week) and demanded to know the details of the details of the argument. When we explained, he seemed very unimpressed, and said something about the first amendment, and freedom of speech being the ‘right to offend’. I didn’t respond because I was confused about what his point was – I figured surely free speech goes both ways? Yes, a man has a right to express his sexist opinions, just as I have a right to question the validity of them. He didn’t want us to leave that day and we agreed to stay and work two extra days as a compromise. Michael said he would try to ‘resolve’ the conflict and ‘work out what had happened’. I pointed out that we’d told him what had happened – he didn’t have to agree with my opinion, but there had been a debate about gender and sexuality between two people with different opinions. He said he’d heard ‘my version’ and would speak to other people to get to the bottom of it. We didn’t want to be around the others that night, and went out to eat in the nearby town. The next morning, Michael called us back for a ‘quick chat’. His said: ‘Last night I did my due diligence, wanting to resolve the conflict that happened. And I found the source of the conflict.’ He paused dramatically, pointed at me and then said, ‘It’s you, and your angry agenda. And that’s it, I’m going to ask you to leave. Don’t argue with anyone else and leave.’ I was so happy to go, as I’d been regretting agreeing to stay the extra two days. I smiled at the term ‘angry agenda’, we packed and left. We are now in a hostel and working out what to do with our sudden freedom. I know it was a lucky escape (we were due to stay there one month!), but it’s left me re-running the whole situation in my mind. The hypocrisy of touting ‘freedom of speech’ in defense of a man’s chauvinistic judgments, and then telling me to leave his house because of my ‘angry agenda’ …? At first I found it funny because it’s so textbook. But it’s not funny, really – just surreal and all too real at the same time. Thank you so much for this platform – I feel better for venting!