I would like to preface this article with the statement that my views do not reflect the views of York PEN as a whole society; in a recent debate at a weekly meeting there were a broad range of views on the topic of no platforming, some in favour of it and some against.
Online magazine Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings grades UK universities red, amber and green in accordance with how free speech is on their campus: out of the 115 of those analysed, only 23 were graded as green, meaning only 20% of universities have a “hands-off approach” to free speech. In recent months everything from a Nietzsche society to t-shirts bearing atheist slogans have been banned on campuses. There seems to be a worrying trend in universities of placing offended feelings over intellectual debate.
No platforming on campus is part of this trend. Initially used by the NUS to protect students from religious radicalisation and violent fascist views, it sought to certain individuals and groups, the English Defence League for example, from speaking at student unions that were affiliated with the NUS. It has been expanded in recent years with the goal of making campuses ‘safe spaces’ for students of all backgrounds and identities and has been strengthened by Theresa May’s recent counter-terrorism bill that threatens legal action against universities if they fail to protect students from extremist religious views.
This policy has been widely discussed in recent weeks in the wake of feminist speakers Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel being removed from events or being pressured to cancel their appearances due to student lobbies. While Greer’s views are hugely problematic and deserve to be publicly critiqued, the issue of no platforming is wider than just Greer and transphobia. Politicians such as Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, George Galloway and Israeli ambassadors, as well as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, have faced attempts to no platform them from both the NUS and individual university student unions.
This view that students need to be ‘protected’ from dangerous views is patronising at best, and vaguely sinister at worst. Universities are not private or domestic spaces for the students who attend them: they are public, academic institutions. It should not be the job of universities to shelter students from views which may offend them, but to give them the tools to critically engage with these views. As academic institutions, universities should be society’s centre of the debate and dissection of all kinds of opinion. Joanna Williams- a member of the team that compiled the University Free Speech Rankings- argues that “putting things beyond debate, particularly in the name of safety and emotional protection, says that some things are [too] dangerous to be discussed.” As students, we have the unique opportunity to challenge these speakers out in the open. One professor, Thomas Scotto from Essex University, said his “heart broke” at seeing students who had written “pages and pages of notes ready to challenge the speaker, and that was wasted” when a talk given by an Israeli ambassador was called off. Let those who spout outdated racist, homophobic and misogynist rhetoric be rigorously put to the test by the brightest minds in the country.
One of the most persuasive arguments in favour of no platforming is that it is an attempt to balance a society where minority and marginalised groups have a smaller voice that those within mainstream culture. This is certainly an issue; speakers such as Marine Le Pen being given a prominent platform when Islamophobia is rife seems to be merely contributing to a system that privileges a dominant, racist discourse. In the short term, it seems that refusing certain people that right to espouse offensive views will make these views go away. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that forcing views underground makes them more radical, more violent and more dangerous. As Sarah Ditum (in The New Statesman) points out, no platforming has been mostly abandoned by the anti-fascist groups that initially propagated it because it simply doesn’t work; “blogging and social media meant that a platform was no longer something that could be withheld: anyone with any views can now hold forth so long as they have an internet connection and a Twitter login.” She illustrates this with the example of Hope Not Hate, one of the UK’s largest anti-fascist groups, noting how they have shifted from “a policy of radical non-engagement to one of equally radical popular engagement.” The only effective counter-measure for speech that is ignorant and offensive should be more speech, not less; opening up the debate, rather than shutting it down.
I recently saw Germaine Greer speaking in Oxford on the new Women’s Equality Party (a friend had free tickets, I had just read the Female Eunuch and thought, why not?). I left the talk feeling both embarrassed for her and extremely disappointed that a woman once so important to the feminist movement could be doing so much damage to it now. Not only did she make a few extremely ignorant comments about transgender women, but claimed that contraceptives should not be provided for young women and that elderly women should not have their breasts screened for cancer. In short, she was talking ill-informed nonsense. I went away being sure to tell friends and family that Greer has, in my opinion, little to add to the feminism of today and that seeing her speak would be both a waste of time and money. But what is key is that I got to make that informed decision for myself. We have to allow people to make their own decisions on what they believe, rather than telling them. If not, we come dangerously close to the mantra spouted by Samuel Butler’s University of Unreason from his satirical novel Erewhon: “Our mission is not to help students to think for themselves … Our duty is to make them think as we do, or at least find it convenient to say what we think.”
At the University of York, we were graded green in Spiked’s rankings. Let’s keep it that way.
When asked for comment, English PEN’s head of communications, Robert Sharp, responded with:
“Proponents of No Platform have noble aims, but such policies are illiberal and have unforeseen consequences.
First, free speech means nothing without the right to air views that others might find offensive. Some of the best ideas, such as votes for women, and same sex marriage, were once considered outrageous in this country and still deemed offensive in some parts of the world.
No Platform does not eradicate vile views – It merely sends them elsewhere. It is the political equivalent of fly-tipping, forcing someone else to deal with the mess. A far more satisfying and productive approach is to tackle the problem head on. It is surely not beyond the wit of students at one of the UK’s top universities to muster conclusive arguments against racists, misogynists and homophobes.
Finally, No Platform robs ordinary people of the chance to make up their own minds. Universities are full of decent young people who have nevertheless led a sheltered life—I know this because I was one of them. Such people may well hold mistaken views, especially on issues such as race and gender identity which, even in 2015, are simply not discussed properly in the mainstream culture. A robust debate on such issues, where naive assumptions are challenged, is the perfect place for these people to find enlightenment. Telling people that they are bigots, unworthy of a voice or an opinion, just alienates potential allies.”