The mutation of No-Platforming

Safya Khan-Ruf - 18 05 18

Universities Minister Sam Gyimah announced free speech had to be protected from intolerance and “overzealous” regulations earlier this month.

The Minister unveiled a new set of guidelines to “provide clarity”, the first time in 30 years that the government has involved itself with free speech on campus.

A meeting between government officials and higher education groups during a “free speech summit” was a response to concerns that universities have become hostile places for freedom of expression.

But when Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights investigated, it found that a bigger problem was red tape and confusion over what was permissible.

The committee’s report states:

“Any inhibition on lawful free speech is serious, and there have been such incursions, but we did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested.”

Universities are already subject to several laws that limit which speakers they invite. This includes the Prevent programme, the Equalities Act and the rules of the Office for Students.

Wes Streeting MP tweeted: “Why does Sam Gyimah want students’ unions to host the like of Hizb ut-Tahir, MPAC and the EDL? Why is he meddling in students’ unions’ policies a government priority?”

University Minister Sam Gyimah speaking at Policy Exchange event
University Minister Sam Gyimah

Unfashionable or fascist?

Over the last few years there has been growing agitation around “no-platforming” controversial speakers and the censorship of certain viewpoints due to student pressure.

Feminist write Julie Bindel was banned from speaking at Manchester University’s student union as select students considered her “transphobic”. Another speaker refused to share a platform with Peter Tatchell, a gay rights activist, at Canterbury Christ Church University after accusing him of racism and transphobia. Even Nick Lowles, head of HOPE not hate, was no-platformed at an NUS event for supposedly being “Islamophobic”.

“A society in which people feel they have a legitimate right to stop someone expressing their views on campus simply because they are unfashionable or unpopular is rather chilling,” says Gyimah.

Gyimah’s position is understandable in light of how no-platforming has expanded over decades. It was originally about keeping people safe on campus from the violent far right. But the definition of  what constitutes ‘violence’ and ‘safety’ seems to have expanded in recent decades, meaning no platform has as well.

On the one hand, this means the expansion of no-platform to a much wider array of people and groups is in keeping with our better understanding of damage and harm that can be caused to vulnerable people by non-physical actions.

However, on the other hand it can be viewed as banning anyone people find offensive.

Changing times

While no-platforming has been used to shut down legitimate viewpoints under false accusations, this tactic has expanded far beyond its original use as a way to respond to the organised fascist far right. Denial of public space was integral against the National Front and later, the British National Party, and has been used by the anti-fascist movement since the 1930s.

Refusing a speaker a platform used to be about the right of communities to self-defence, such as the Jewish community in Cable Street defending itself from fascists marching through their neighbourhoods in the 1930s.

One newsletter put together by the LSE branch of the International Socialists during the 20th century stated:

“Fascism aims to smash, racism creates the conditions for their destruction. We cannot allow the open fascist, or the concealed fascist working in the Monday Club or some similar organisation to gain a hearing. Every meeting that they hold gives them confidence. Every apologist for racism lends them comfort. Every liberal who debates with them gives them aid – much against their will.”

There was a general consensus by liberals living in the post-Cold War age to refuse platforms to fascists and the increasing mainstream opposition to the tactic today shows a decline of societal anti-fascist consensus.

Protestors holding "No platform for fascism" placards
Students protesting against fascism

Alt-right advantage

Earlier this month 2,000-3,000 supporters from the far right, alt-right and alt-light movements converged on Whitehall for a so-called ‘Day for Freedom’ demonstration.

The rally was their most significant far-right gathering in London for years and while there was an implicitly anti-Muslim agenda, the rhetoric circled around the supposed curtailment of the speakers’ freedom of speech. Ironically, this supposed trampling of their rights was repeated loudly outside the Houses of Parliament, in the heart of Westminster, and shared to millions online.

Participants included English Defence League founder turned serial anti-Muslim agitator, Stephen Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson), as well as the founder of the “Proud Boys” fraternity Gavin McInnes and anti-Muslim and anti-feminist personality Milo Yiannopoulos.

All three have been banned from speaking at university events in the past and decry their freedom of speech being taken away by caricatured proponents of ‘politically correctness’, such as “blue haired social justice warrior vegans”, and their backers (the supposed left-wing establishment).

The no-platform debate has become intrinsically linked to the freedom of speech debate yet they are two different issues: the right to freedom of speech and the right to say it wherever you want. No-platforming is the latter, and does not impinge on the right to free speech.

Universities are places of debate and ideas. But the far right makes the false assumption that diversity of opinion always leads to attainment of truth, ignoring that it is often the loudest claim rather than the truest one that wins a debate.

At worst, debates can become flooded with proven falsities such as Holocaust denial, disbelief in climate change and pseudo-scientific racism, which risks unduly legitimising topics that objectively are not legitimate.

Not all ideas are equal and should not be treated as such. The Holocaust happened. Climate change is real. Racism is wrong. Debating these issues does not bring us closer to the truth. Hence no-platforming such speakers does not stop students from getting to the truth.

Furthermore, there is the issue of whether universities have an obligation to spend often-exorbitant security fees to host a speaker like Milo Yiannopoulos in the UK.

UKIP demonstration

Social injustice

All too often those condemning the supposed clampdown on free speech fundamentally underestimate the potential for social inequalities to be reflected in public debate, and seem ignorant to the nature and extent of these inequalities in the marketplace of ideas.

Those who recognise this feature of much debate understand very quickly why some are in a position to shout loudest in the first place.

The position of far-right ‘free speech’ advocates is ultimately paradoxical. They claim to be committed to valuing equal free speech above other values, while simultaneously propagating an unequal debate that further undermines the free speech of those who are already harmed by social inequalities (namely minority groups).

Miranda Fricker, a British philosopher, has explored in great depth the concept of ‘testimonial injustice’ to describe prejudices that causes one to “give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word”. Following her analysis, it seems an effective debate requires that speakers are attentive to how they interpret what they hear when they listen to others speak and do not dismiss a speaker’s words due to a conscious or subconscious bias.

Since politics is, among other things, a dialogue, caring about politics means there is a duty to be attentive to ensuring good quality dialogue such as by being attentive to tone, taking claims of harm by causing offence at face value, apologising succinctly, and moving on rather than dwelling on the veracity of these claims and taking the time to school oneself on new political terminology.

Instead of framing the free speech discussion around the question of “what are the limits to free speech?”, this idea reorients the focus to “what does worthwhile political dialogue require from all of us?”

Viewed from this angle, demanding sensitivity in political discussion is not necessarily a sign that someone is needlessly averse to offence, but rather an expression of their awareness that the topic under discussion might be more complex than the listener is probably assuming, and that some of these complexities might involve kinds of human experience which the speaker has a richer understanding of.

This level of self-analysis can seem especially stifling to people who are used to thinking that political discussion is most effective when combative and, moreover, someone might dislike this because it makes political dialogue less of a “game” and more laborious. But no-one said politics ought to be fun or easy.

National Union of Students' protestors holding placards

Although no-platforming has expanded and remains controversial, the internet allows anyone – including far-right personalities – to create their own microphone. The power of social media has changed how opinions are shared and makes the tactic of no-platforming redundant to a certain degree.

No-platforming can also be counter productive in certain situations. When HOPE not hate mobilised a community to force a local night club in Greater Manchester to cancel a fundraising event for the British National Party (BNP) in 2009, 400 local people got involved and signed a petition. However, an anti-fascist hitting a BNP member in the head overshadowed the community action as the incident made national news.

The debate has altered beyond recognition over the last 20 years, with attitudes changing so that even people who consider themselves liberals do not subscribe to the no-platform ideas of the past. More recently, it has been used as an excuse to shut down views some people don’t like at universities.

While the far right is desperately positioning themselves as underdogs, protecting free speech and under attack, it is vital to remember the origins of no-platforming and the need to adapt to changing times in the battle against fascism, racism and hate.


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