We’ve lost the battle for No Platforming
We can’t have a sensible conversation about no platforming. Here’s how we can try to move on.
No platforming has become our generation’s political issue.
No other debate so divides and riles campus activists, journalists and hacks of every kind, while everyone over 25 looks on in bemusement, or occasionally condescending self-satisfaction. Progressives have failed to make the case for why no platforming matters, and the result is that it has become a byword for censorship and extreme politics.
The issue has become confused. The image of self-righteous and overly self-assured students who have taken Caitlin Moran‘s writings as marching orders, who Take Back the Night in goose-stepping formation, and who will boycott anyone who’s ever breathed the same air as Germaine Greer has caught on. When we talk about no platforming now, we forfeit conversation about the harms that marginalising opinions can do to oppressed groups in favour of quarrels about whether it’s fair to compare Gloria Steinem and the Third Reich. The no platforming debate isn’t about platforms or speech at all; it’s become a proxy issue for a debate between a left wing progressive (and admittedly a bit navel-gazing) student movement and the people who think that movement represents everything wrong with the youth of today.
But there is a real case for no platforming. Firstly that case is about realising that speech can cause far more than easily-dismissed offense, it can do real and lasting harm. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is utter bullshit, and anyone who was bullied in school knows it. Words cause extreme distress, poor mental health and even suicide attempts. The impact verbal abuse can have on oppressed groups in the context of a world that we know is racist, transphobic, sexist, ableist, classist, and homophobic is even greater. Words which express bigotry shared by many people are so much worse than ordinary bullying. The harm that they can do is real and important, and it ruins lives every day.
The other thing we need to learn is that a platform is power. Free speech only dictates that people can open their mouths and talk, it doesn’t compel or even encourage anyone to listen. Having a platform is different. If you’re organising a debate, or hosting a speaker, or even if you just own a soapbox and you’re deciding who you want to stand on it, then you have more influence than most people. You have the power to choose which opinions are showcased, and which voices you deem worthy of your audience’s attention.
What’s more, since the number of platforms around is limited, and not all platforms are equal, those people who have the resources and reputation to attract attention and crowds have even more power. Think about the Union: there are actually very few organisations that control a large hall for speakers, attract local and sometimes national media attention, and can reliably attract significant audiences. Since we know that words and therefore speakers can do real harm, and on the flipside real good, this power is not insignificant. It can and does have an effect on people.
It’s a cliché that with power comes responsibility. The people that control these big platforms are in real positions of responsibility, because they decide which voices get heard. It’s easy from there to argue for no platforming. When the people who control platforms choose to host people whose opinions are likely to do harm rather than good, then we might be justified in trying to prevent that harm; we can rightly act to protect those who will be hurt. No platforming comes from a reasonable place, but that doesn’t make it the right approach.
The only way to end talk of students hell-bent on the destruction of free speech and civilization is to make the case a positive one: not banning the people we don’t want to hear, but fighting for the ones we do. The power that being able to amplify other people’s voices gives could do incredibly good things. There are so many out there who are intelligent, entertaining, engaging, thought-provoking and impressive who are never given the opportunity to speak to an audience prepared to listen because they are homeless, or women, or disabled, or BME, or trans, or in countless other ways left out of our stale conversation, which keeps coming back to the same old famous faces who have pulpits for their opinions everywhere they look. Platforms can be used to fight bigotry or to reinforce it, and as students involved in the life of our university many of us have the power and responsibility to decide which.
We’ve lost the battle for no platforming. Instead, let’s talk about better platforming.