Trigger warning: transphobia, sexual violence.
It’s a common misconception that ‘no platform’ policies are about stifling debate. They’re not.
Last weekend the committee of the St John’s Gender Equality Festival apologised for a transphobic article – ‘What is a woman?’ – published in the festival zine. In a statement on Facebook they explained that they “do not agree with platforming views in our zine that contribute to a culture of oppression and fear, even in a situation where the publication was trying to remain neutral.”
The decision to refuse to offer a platform to a particular ideology, whether it’s transphobic, homophobic, or fascist, is motivated by the simple desire not to see that ideology spread.
The notion that public forums are hot bright spaces of rational debate and that reason will win out in an open debate is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. Every speaker and author presents their view with the intention of persuading their audience to see the world as they do. There are whole books written about the logical fallacies and cunning tools of rhetoric which ideologues and politicians can and do use to manipulate those they have a platform to speak to. Fascists appeal to fear: fear of immigrants, fear of change, fear of moral collapse and social implosion. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists – TERFs – appeal to fear and to disgust: of the sexual other; of transitioning, of ‘men’ perverting the female, of sexual violence in the awful, unconscionable rhetoric of the rape and mutilation of men’s and women’s bodies.
The committee’s apology shows they know this: that transphobic expressions “contribute to a culture of oppression and fear”. ‘No platform’ policies are not about stifling debate and speech, they are about protecting oppressed groups by restricting the audience that manipulative bigotry can reach. They are about preventing that bigotry taking root among those who interact with those groups and those who write policies that affect them.
Perhaps you’re not convinced that being a TERF makes you a bigot. If you’re not a gay man, imagine you are. Imagine you’re told that the way you feel – the way you didn’t choose to feel – is perverse and dangerous; that you’re trying to subvert, undermine, or appropriate the oppression of heterosexual women by seeking men as sexual partners; that you should be denied essential healthcare and support, whether physical, sexual, or mental; and that being gay somehow makes you an abuser of bodies, someone vile and to be shunned. Some of us know what it feels like to be told that what you feel and know about yourself – which you yourself have even challenged in your head a thousand times, denied to yourself, hated yourself for – is an evil, manipulative lie.
No one seriously believes that refusing a platform to transphobes or fascists will extinguish their views or make those who want to know about them unable to find out about them. This is, after all, the age of the Internet.
The great half-baked liberal fallacy is that refusing platforms prevents ideologues from being challenged, that restricting the audience of dangerous ideas is counterproductive. Go on Google now and see how much trans-positive and anti-fascist literature you can find. There’s loads of it; and you’ll find positive views in zines and blogs across Oxford and the web, many of which will discuss and refute the ideologies we refuse platforms to. What we want to prevent is bigots being granted opportunities to present their thoughts in manipulative, deceptive, fear-mongering ways. In no way do we want to stop talking about and challenging transphobia.