No-Platform's Benevolent Mask Isn't Just Slipping, It's Shattering

29/10/2015 11:30 GMT | Updated 26/10/2016 10:12 BST

It has not been a good first term at British Universities for free speech so far, with no-platforming efforts targeting everything and everyone from a student magazine in Oxford, to ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie, and both sides of a feminism debate at Manchester - with Germaine Greer as the latest target (unsuccessfully, however). However, perhaps the one positive to come out of this unprecedented wave of no-platforming is that the idea's mask of benevolence has not only slipped, but shattered completely.

To deal firstly with the earliest case of Maryam Namazie's alleged no-platforming in Warwick, what was both shocking and unsurprising at the same time was the idea that she needed to be no-platformed to avoid offending Muslims. However, this is nothing new; Brandeis University reversed its decision to invite Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree last year for precisely the same reasons, and even Bill Maher found his commencement address at Berkeley was protested for his alleged Islamophobia in his criticism of Islamic extremism. The same considerations allegedly motivated much of the protesting by a violent mob against the visit of Marine Le Pen to the Oxford Union, though perhaps more ironically still were those that claimed that they were protesting her because her appearance would be offensive to Jews (homogenising them in exactly the same way as Muslims are in the previous examples). The latter ignores both the fact that Jewish votes for the FN are on the rise (and indeed Ms. Le Pen publically disagreed with her father on Holocaust denial to the point of expelling him from the Party), and the fact that the New Left's own record on responding to anti-Semitism is far from exemplary to say the least. For all the supposed concern of the Le Pen protestors for the Jews they patronisingly claimed to speak for, several prominent protestors were in fact in the audience of an address by members of the openly anti-Semitic Nation of Islam in the same term and I suspect this is because they sympathised with some of the Nation's ideas (such as casting "white supremacy" as the root of all evil, including Islamic extremism).

A starker contrast still is provided by the recent no-platform controversy at Manchester SU, where the speakers on either side of a debate were no-platformed by the Student Union. Julie Bindel, who was specifically targeted for no-platforming by the NUS Women's and LGBT Conferences last year (the latter also calling for "a socialist alternative to austerity" (motion 302) in the name of all LGBT students in the typical fashion of far-left identity politics), was no-platformed immediately by Manchester SU with heavy restrictions allegedly placed on the continued attendance of her would-be opponent: openly gay Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulos. However, shortly afterwards, the SU decided to also no-platform Milo on account of his own socially conservative and anti-feminist views. Perhaps ironically, the two of them were to debate whether feminism has a problem with free speech; while that topic is certainly debateable, what clearly isn't so is whether our Dear Leaders of the so-called "student movement" have just such a problem: they very clearly do. More shocking still is that in 2013, an Islamist speaker who stated that gay people should be executed was not only hosted by the SU but their identity was protected; indeed, it is notable that - while paying lip-service to their "safe space" policy - the SU expressed its strongest and most immediate disappointment with the fact that the event had been recorded in the first place.

These contrasting applications of the alleged principles of no-platform show that, as ever, the censors in charge of judging for the rest of us what we should be allowed to hear treat those with whom they sympathise or agree (which increasingly includes Islamist extremists, with more than 70 such speakers addressing universities last year) differently. We should make no mistake: what SU censors are proposing when they no-platform speakers is not that everyone has a "right" not to be offended, but only that they do. The obvious question is this: where does that "right" come from? The answer should be just as obvious: it comes not from any peculiar ability of theirs to speak in the names of others and with their voices, or from a unique incorruptibility in that they are untainted by the views they seek to protect us from lest our feeble minds be led astray. It comes instead from blatant arrogance and a sense that they and only they hold the key to absolute truth, and that everyone who disagrees is not only wrong but morally repugnant.

But it must not be thought that an equal application of no-platform would be any more defensible; the problem is with the idea of no-platform rather than its application. The first is simply pragmatic; if everyone is awarded such a "right" not to be offended, then all speech would stop since it's theoretically possible for almost any viewpoint to offend somebody. The second, and stronger, point is normative, namely that the value of free speech is intrinsically greater than the value of shielding people - who not being forced to attend an address - from ideas they find offensive. As Ian McEwan said in his commencement address to Dickinson College this year, nobody has a right to a state of grace, and the possibility of being offended is a price that must be paid in order to live in a free society. One need only look to countries such as Saudi Arabia to see what happens when the leaders of a country manage to enshrine for themselves such a right not to be offended.

However, what is increasingly repugnant about no-platform policies is their sheer essentialism; so long as a person holds one objectionable view, then they may not speak about anything. Germaine Greer's lecture title, for instance, will be "Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century", which seems unlikely to have anything to do with her views on transgender issues, yet merely having the opinions that she does (which do not include any call to deny reassignment surgery to transgender people or use the wrong gender pronouns) disqualifies her from speaking on any topic in the view of the aspiring censors, betraying that this isn't even about keeping people shielded from views they may find offensive, but subjecting people who the censors find offensive to social exile. This is even more apparent in the case of Julie Bindel, whose tireless work to - among other things - end the old "marital rape" rule in England is subordinate to her opinions on transgender issues, even when she's apologised for her earlier views.

Yet if one positive can come out of the wave of no-platforming and censorship that is coming out of SUs today, it is that the mask of benevolence seems to have shattered for good. Nobody, for instance, should take seriously the idea that OUSU were trying to maintain a "safe space" for people who were free to ignore Marine Le Pen's talk at the Oxford Union by creating a violent mob that abused students on the way in and put those lucky enough to get into the Chamber under Police protection. Nor, surely, does the idea expressed by supporters of OUSU that banning No Offence magazine from Freshers Fair does not substantially affect its distribution reach when we consider firstly that Freshers Fair is the best place for any publication to have an audience, and secondly when an officer of an OUSU-backed campaign called the Police to stop distribution outside the Fair anyway (when a common retort by defenders of the ban was that it could just be distributed outside).

From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, it's easy to criticise the idea at the heart of No-Platform paternalism, namely that the no-platformers are "protecting" people from ideas that are "harmful" or - worse still - that they are defending true freedom of speech by so doing. Firstly, the appropriate response to "bad" speech must surely be better speech, rather than simply shutting up a speaker and pretending their ideas will go away. For all the controversy surrounding Nick Griffin's appearances on Question Time in 2009, and at the Oxford Union in 2007 (where a mob of protestors invaded the Chamber, and chanted for the murder of then-President Tryll), we forget that it showed many in the country that the BNP were not in fact a legitimate party of protest, and that the idea that David Irving had a point when questioning the Holocaust was only defeated by allowing him to say what he thought (notably also at the Oxford Union in 2007 where he was described as coming off as "pathetic"). On the other hand, we also need to have our views challenged by new and different ideas, because some of the ideas we hold to be unquestionable truths may actually be wrong.

On a normative level too, we must deal with the idea that defending "true" entails denying people the right to speak. In fact, no-platform policies are by definition threats to any idea of free speech as a universal right; to be universal, free speech must extend to everyone, and it is in fact all the more important that the orthodoxy's heretics be allowed to speak. No platform polices destroy this. If our Dear Leaders want to argue that they have a unique right to not hear views that offend them - a right which they will not extend to their opponents, and indeed cannot or else all speech would stop - then they should at least be honest about it, rather than deceiving your audience by pretending that (legal) free speech has not been replaced by speech subject to conditions. Increasingly, however, their actions betray that they are fully aware of this, even if their words don't.

With thanks to Anastasia Tropsha for her assistance