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This House Believes That Popularity Is Enough to Justify A Platform

24/11/2014 12:45 GMT | Updated 21/01/2015 10:59 GMT

This is an abridged version of a speech that the author delivered on the 20th November 2014 at the Oxford Union in favour of the motion, "This House Believes That Popularity Is Enough To Justify A Platform".

Good evening, fellow members of this society. It is a pleasure to be here at this debate. I would just like to offer some remarks by way of clarification. There is a difference between allowing someone freedom of speech, and offering them a platform for said speech. For example, I think that any strange man should be allowed to claim that magic water cures diseases. I certainly don't think that anyone is obliged to give him a platform, or even make him their head of state. Therefore, what I must show tonight is that having a popular opinion is enough to merit a particular form of special treatment.

This evening, I will be looking at what it means to give someone a platform, and why popularity of a belief is enough to give it this privilege. There are three main points I want to consider; one, that if we want a decent criteria of what we should platform, that popularity is one of the few that can work ; two, that no platforming does not work against popular views; and three, that no platforming simply reinforces the legitimisation of violence in a political system.

So, first and foremost, what sort of platform should we be considering? One thing that I do want to avoid arguing against is the notion of a safe space. There is no onus on Oxford's largest feminist Facebook page to give airtime to outrageous misogynists, for example. These and other sorts of forum are spaces which have a duty of care to their members which outweighs the rights of people to say things which are reasonably likely to cause offence. I firmly believe that those who want to discuss very contentious and potentially triggering topics should keep, and be kept, well away from those who could be distressed by their words. I also firmly believe that certain views need to be tackled somewhere. That is not what safe spaces are for and nor should they be, but it is the purpose of places like the Union. When I say platform, I therefore mean a platform at these places.

First, I want to offer a positive criterion for popularity as a justification of a platform. For us to offer a view a platform, it has to be at least reasonably worthy of consideration. I don't believe that such an objective standard with which to judge this has been found. Insofar as we think that fellow people are generally reasonable, then, a view which is commonly held in our society does at least seem like it has passed a subjective test of being reasonably worthy of consideration. And this seems to track a lot of intuitions on the matter. The Union would never, I hope, hold a debate on the ethics of universal suffrage; yet it would seem somewhat less offensive had this occurred at the turn of the twentieth century. I would be opposed to inviting a proponent of Apartheid to give a speech, simply because there is no reasonable debate concerning the legitimacy of it. I am staunchly in favour of ending the War on Drugs, and in maybe fifty to a hundred years I hope that there is no reasonable justification for hosting a debate on doing so. However, I disagree with the notion that it is at this time a subject which cannot be debated. For one, the ethical concerns surrounding the War on Drugs are ones which have the potential to cause a vast difference of opinion between people we would presently regard as reasonable. Two, by pretending that there is no debate left to happen we lull ourselves into a false sense of security. Whilst the United States is making slow progress on this issue, we still have a ridiculously arcane system of drug classification in this country; the argument has by no means been won.

The second point is one of pragmatism. The recurring theme of many forms of bigotry is that a particular group holds undue influence in society. And what is the easiest way to convince people that this idea is the case? Of course, it's to stop them from discussing it in public. Attempting to silence a belief such as this which has taken hold in large sections of the public will inevitably backfire. Rather we must drag its proponents into the public arena and show their ideas to be disgraceful. Just look at the spectacular implosion of the British National Party. Back in 2010 they were a lot larger than they are now, and even had representation in the European Parliament. Shortly after this, former party leader Nick Griffin was invited to speak on Question Time. What was the result of that? Well, members of the House, I am incredibly proud to live in a country which has wiped out the BNP to all but two council seats in the United Kingdom; and I hope that those last two seats will follow shortly. Margaret Thatcher may have complained of terrorists being given the oxygen of publicity, but surely as a chemist she should have realised that oxygen in sufficient quantities is poisonous.

My last point is perhaps my most important one, and it is vital to draw a distinction here. When fascists are marching down your street attempting to incite violence, then you have an absolute right to self-defence. Yet when there is no such immediate threat, and someone is stating in a public forum such as this one something that you find immensely disagreeable yet is unlikely to directly incite violence, I simply cannot see how one can attempt to silence such a bigot without legitimising the view that it is okay to silence people who express opinions that you disagree with by force. What is happening today is that, rather than radical opinion being on the receiving end of censorship, it is often those who hold radical opinions who want to attempt to silence people who certainly don't appear to be condemned by the public at large. In both cases, it is seen as a legitimate tactic to use sheer force of numbers or even intimidation to set the parameters of debate. I worry that the tactics used against people who disagree with the current political climate in Oxford are ones that could be used with devastating effect against the people who for now define it. We cannot afford to be in a situation where we are setting an example for the social authoritarians to follow should the political mood in this city- or country- change.

To "platform" a view is not to legitimise it. Only the responses to a view can do that. It is my firm view that "platforming" obnoxious beliefs actually helps to delegitimise them, in so far as the sheer repulsiveness of a view becomes obvious when shown in a public arena. I remain convinced that bigotry can never be based on facts, and that is why I am proud to propose the motion.

The motion was carried, 92 votes in favour to 81 against.