Polarising the free speech debate

The question of who deserves our attention does not allow us easy answers.

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Recent debates over no-platforming have become both increasingly emotional and polarising. One side claims that no-platforming is a weapon of last resort against fascists, extremists, and racists. The other side outdoes this side in hyperbole and takes to framing the issue as one concerning freedom of speech; add to that a healthy dose of self-obsession and a disproportionate sense of self-importance, and you end up with the arguments presented by the likes of Allan Bloom – that speech and debate are the solution to any and all bigotry and hatred.

Indeed, if we are to look at some of the speakers that have been purported to be no-platformed in recent years – from Peter Singer to Peter Tatchell, or even Richard Dawkins – it appears that there are rather curious episodes of no-platforming seemingly stifling debate and shutting out discourse where it could be conducive. In truth, the reality is probably somewhere in between the two extremes (not necessarily right in the middle, however): yes, there are cases where no-platforming has gone too far, but to employ this as a weapon to characterise no-platforming as itself too far or erroneous would be a deeply misguided strategy.

No-platforming is justified on several grounds. The first, and perhaps more negatively quasi-defeatist argument, is that debate simply does not work (or is incredibly difficult) in many instances. Certain speakers – such as Jordan Peterson – enjoy employing deliberately obscurantist phrases and terminology to lend credence to his pseudoscience, and to convince the audience that behind his veil of impenetrable jargon lies a guru in fields of study concerning God-knows-what (his psychology research itself is reasonably high-quality, but his views on alleged ‘Cultural Marxism’ and the contemporary progressive movement are deeply outlandish, to say the least).

Others adopt conniving speaking strategies or hire skilled PR teams to design the Q and A sections such that questions (due to the short time constraints) come across as hurried, rushed, and easily defeasible. Still, many of those speakers who are no-platformed are unpleasant to the extent that few other than their most ardent supporters rock up to these events. This reinforces a (false) sense that they are universally endorsed and strengthens the social and emotional barriers for those brave enough to take on these ‘renowned speakers’.

Finally, many reporting on (or spinning) the speaker events are likely to pick out particular soundbites and take them to be resounding signs of the speaker’s alleged victory (see, “Ben Shapiro Destroys Liberal!”). Now I do not think these reasons are exhaustive – there obviously are cases in which speakers are rightly and adequately challenged; yet the upshot of the above is that there will be instances where the challengers ‘win’ logically, and yet still fail to ‘defeat’ the speaker in the public’s eyes. The public’s views are shaped not by evaluating argument-response-rejoinder, but whose soundbite is more eloquent.

The further justification is that student-centric platforms often lend substantial credibility (and publicity) to these speakers. Universities and their student societies are endowed with an air of faux legitimacy that their counterparts – e.g. political societies or newspapers – tentatively do not possess. A hypothetical platforming of speakers such as Milo Yannopoulos would lend their currently dwindling popularity a massive boost – both in terms of the prospective spinning (e.g. “University students debate and lose to Milo!”) and actual campus-centric publicity. Why lend these individuals more airtime and pseudo-academic credentials, when there are many better alternatives to platform?

Whilst platforming far-right speakers is certainly not the same thing as instigating far-right violence we must be cautious of the potential advances we grant to those who actively seek to undermine the fabric of society and the ability of others to speak. The final justification is a question of resource allocation. Student societies’ time, space, and publicity-associated privilege are scarce resources. Scarce resources must be allocated on a morally justifiable principle that can be reasonably agreed to by all (reasonable) individuals – I don’t need to relitigate Scanlon’s contractualism here. The gist is that no-platforming was never about stripping the ‘freedom of speech’ of a particular speaker, but the question of what metrics should we use (or not use) to allocate airtime in a particular space.

No one has the moral entitlement to speak ill of the dead at their funerals; no one has the right to blast anti-Semitic chants at Holocaust survivors nearby. The right to speech does not extent to all instances or cases. Even if speech does not cause harm, it can still be restricted on grounds of contextual inappropriateness. Robert Simpson and Amia Srinavasan aptly characterise no-platforming as compatible with the broader principles of expertise justice – academic spaces ration their resources and opportunities to speak on the basis of expertise. Speakers who have little to no expertise in the subjects they are to speak on (e.g. Ben Shapiro and reproductive justice) should not be allocated resources that they do not deserve. This has nothing to do with freedom of speech at large.

With that being said, no-platforming is obviously not always the ideal answer to any and all speakers with potentially controversial views. In many instances, no-platforming speakers also lends them greater legitimacy and publicity, providing them with rallying cries to frame themselves as the so-called martyrs and enemies of the “regressive Left”. Ironically, with the no-platforming outside the Union on Thursday night raging on, Katie Hopkins’ speech was met with (shockingly chillingly, for a person of colour like me) applause, even when she slid into her bad-tempered comments about Muslims halfway through her directionless tirade. The motion (in favour of No Platforming) was defeated by a landslide, perhaps the result of the fact that those who could have defended no-platforming and argued their case did not, in fact, go to the debate.

Finally, no-platforming precludes us from persuading and convincing the undecided or the uninformed, who may indeed attend these events with the hope of finding out more about the speakers. Furthermore, there must be greater scrutiny and accountability with regards to the processes which decides whether particular speakers are no-platformed. It would be, in the long run, rather perilous if we were to allow a small group of individuals running an organisation to decide whose speech is worth listening to and whose isn’t. There must be counter-majoritarian measures, of course, to prevent the tyranny of the majority. There should also be checks and balances on those whom hold such counter-majoritarian veto powers. I say this not with the intention of undermining or discrediting the no-platforming movements across university campuses; I say this instead with both respect and admiration for the courage of those who are willing to call out and take on the Establishment.

No-platforming is not universally bad, but we must recognise its limits and flaws when they crop up. Only then can advocates of no-platforming (as I am) withstand the scrutiny and disparaging of reactionaries – with pride, as opposed to evasion. Do not offer platforms to individuals who do not deserve it, but let us be very careful when arbitrating who does, or does not, deserve a platform.