If free speech is to have any possible relevance today, it must be applied without regard for the viewpoint being expressed. What is the purpose of free speech if we grant it only to those whom we agree with, or only those whose views we find ‘acceptable’, whatever that means? ‘No Platform’ policies actively threaten the existence of free speech in this University and beyond.
The arguments for and against free speech, as a principle, have been rehashed in these pages and in others in the past weeks, given the controversy over the cancellation of the recent OSFL debate at Christ Church, so I will not go into them here. Instead, I will look at ‘no platform’ as a policy and discuss its practical success.
The fundamental problem with the ‘no platform’ policy is that it produces adverse consequences. The ‘no platform’ policy was originally created by the anti-fascist movement as a response to far-right anti-immigration groups like the BNP and EDL. By denying these groups a platform, it was argued, students would be protected from racist, pernicious views. It would also avoid propagation of their ideas to a wider audience. But this argument ignores three key points.
First, it is only through the airing of such views in a scrutinising intellectual environment that their absurdity can be seen. A good example of this is the Holocaust denier David Irving’s appearance at the Union in 2007. Afterwards the then-President said, “At the end of that David Irving came out looking pathetic.” Sarah Ditum points to Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time in 2009 as the beginning of the end for the BNP. So, despite protestations from those looking to stifle debate that allowing them to air their views in public forums like the Union and BBC is dangerous, it actually ends in them being discredited in the eyes of the public.
Second, whilst Holocaust denial is evidently offensive to a huge number of people, the logic of a ‘no platform’ argument is that we should begin to censor Wikipedia, Google, books in our libraries, and any other circumstance in which people might happen upon mentions of Holocaust denial. This is clearly absurd, because we credit Oxford students with more robust intellectual capacities to think dispassionately and rationally about these issues. Having these resources available is valuable to the progression of human understanding.
When I searched David Irving on SOLO earlier, I found on the first page two books by the author, and eight critical responses to his work. This is the value of having these views aired in public: the academic debate moves in response and makes the counter arguments public, hopefully resulting in the loss of public support for the likes of David Irving.
A third and final reason why ‘no platform’ is an ineffective policy is because of the nature of ‘platform’ in the modern era. With the proliferation of social media, particularly YouTube and Twitter, anyone and everyone has the ability to access a platform — a platform free from scrutiny. By marginalising people with popular support (like the BNP in 2008-09), it actually plays into the narrative of the BNP and UKIP, parties which attract much support from those who feel alienated from the political mainstream. When UKIP rails against Westminster, and the ‘urban liberal elite’, the way to respond is not to continue their exclusion, which just perpetuates this argument, but to allow them participation and the inevitable failure that will result from their views being subject to scrutiny and debate.
As a final thought, I ask this. Which other controversial figures would we have denied a platform to in the past? Marx? Socrates? Galileo? These are all people who defied public opinion at the time of publication of their works, and yet have all contributed to the advancement of human understanding. I’m not suggesting that David Irving is any Copernicus, but for all we know we could be missing out on the next great thinker by undermining free speech through the adaption of ‘no platform’ policies. We should be wary of that fact.
Allow me to indulge in a little thought experiment. You’re organising a panel discussion on the politics of immigration. You’ve agreed your line-up, booked the room, sorted advertising, then the phone rings. It’s the voice of well-meaning liberalism, and he (for it’s rarely anyone but a he) wants you to invite a few more speakers in the name of free speech, including Tommy Robinson, David Irving, the Ku Klux Klan and the Devil. Assuming you decline the request, you’re then blasted as a totalitarian, a “Stepford Student”, and an enemy of the open society.
Whatever happened to the principle that not everyone deserves each and every platform on which to promote their views?
As the President of the Cambridge Union, Tim Squirrell, put it so eloquently this week: free speech doesn’t mean you get every platform you want. Unfortunately for Oxford’s students, our own Union President Mayank Banerjee thinks there is something of worth that the knuckle-dragging, racist thug Tommy Robinson has to say to Oxford students. I don’t. Despite his ostensible public abandonment of the English Defence League, he nonetheless tweeted last month, “Happy to hear the EDL gave a round of applause for me before their demo. The EDL will always hold a place in my heart.”
Robinson’s airtime gives credence to racist and fascist views, and perpetuates a culture where people of colour are put at risk of violent attack, as well as contributing to their ongoing oppression. On the night Nick Griffin was lampooned by liberals on Question Time, 3,000 people joined the BNP, making a mockery of countering fascism via “exposing its ideas’’.
Given Robinson’s continued, if muted support, for the EDL and given that I believe he still holds racist views, it should have been clear to the Union that they should not privilege their desire to have a (probably very boring) speech ahead of the safety of our society’s people of colour.
Much of this also applies to the “abortion culture” debate last week. Brendan O’Neill is obviously not a fascist, although his cover piece in The Spectator this week confirms he is an intellectual and political turd. In fact, he was the allegedly pro-choice speaker in the debate.
The issue at hand was that the oppression of women, by a society and state that is yet to grant fully legalised abortions, was trivialized and reduced into a debate between two people without uteri. In Britain, after a woman has decided that she wants to end her pregnancy, she has to persuade two doctors to agree to her decision on the basis of restrictive legalcriteria.
Christ Church had the choice, either to stand with the victims of such oppression, or contribute to that oppression. Remarkably, one of Oxford’s most conservative colleges got it right: we don’t need to platform oppressive views about “abortion culture” in our communities.
Going further, Edinburgh University Students’ Association are now opening investigations into the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity on campus. A close friend of mine helped to expose this vile group. Their Facebook page showed members talking about feminists in disgusting ways, with one asking, “How are we going to rape them?” whilst another said, “Let’s go to Montenegro, for a raping trip.” Fraternities like this are a threat to women’s safety and should be driven from campuses.
In all these cases, language is used to oppress, not merely to offend. The proliferation of these oppressive ideas contributes to human suffering and oppression. If it means anything to be on the political Left, and advocates of ‘no platform’ are almost solely of the Left, then it means standing unreservedly and unconditionally with the oppressed.
Those who would give a platform to the Tommy Robinsons of this world are knowingly and willfully contributing to the oppression of those less privileged than them for the sake of a liberal debating fetish. I condemn them.