In November 2014, Oxford Students for Life organised a debate, to be hosted at Christ Church, a college at Oxford University, on the motion “This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All”. Two guest speakers were invited: Tim Stanley to speak in favour of the proposition and Brendan O’Neill to speak against. As Stanley wrote in his post-mortem of the ensuing ordeal, “this wasn’t a pro-life demo and the subject wasn’t whether or not women should have the right to choose abortion. […] [T]he motion ha[d] nothing to do with abortion rights per se and was simply a consideration of how having effective abortion on demand affects wider society”.
But, to the activists who demanded the event’s cancellation, the content of the motion was irrelevant; rather, all that mattered was their subjective interpretation of it. The students in question — a group of feminists who organised their protest through a Facebook group called “What the fuck is ‘Abortion Culture’?” — deemed their offence at the prospect of two people “who do not have uteruses” debating abortion a valid criterion for deciding, on behalf of the entire Oxford community, that the debate should not be allowed to proceed. They preemptively accused Stanley and O’Neill of propagating “really shitty anti-choice rhetoric and probs some cissexism,” and promised to “take along some non-destructive but oh so disruptive instruments to help demonstrate to the anti-choicers just what we think of their ‘debate’.” The Women’s Campaign of the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) likewise condemned the organisers, stating: “It is absurd to think we should be listening to two cisgender men debate about what people with uteruses should be doing with their bodies.” (I wonder what they would have said to a transgender woman speaking instead.)
In the end, the Christ Church Junior Common Room (JCR) committee, the undergraduate representative body, requested that the college refuse to host the event. Christ Church capitulated, citing insufficient time to address the concerns raised. And although Students for Life tried to find another venue, they were turned away by the other colleges they approached. The debate was cancelled.
This story will sound dismally familiar to observers of higher education and youth culture on both sides of the Atlantic. Cases of no-platforming, driven by student activists seeking to redefine the accepted bounds of discourse within their communities, have proliferated rapidly across university campuses in both Britain and North America. No-platformers have targeted the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Maryam Namazie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Germaine Greer, Christine Lagarde, Marine Le Pen and Bill Maher (although their efforts have not been successful in all cases). Students at a women’s college in Massachusetts cancelled a performance of The Vagina Monologues, organised as a fundraiser for the V-Day campaign to end violence against women, for not being inclusive enough to transgender women. Meanwhile, Jerry Seinfeld — one of America’s best-loved and cleanest comedians — has attested that fear of a backlash over political correctness is strongly deterring comics from performing on US college campuses. In the UK, John Cleese has likewise announced that he will no longer perform at universities because political correctness has taken over.
Media reactions to these developments have ranged widely. Some criticise millennials for their alleged hypersensitivity and unwillingness to engage with ideas that do not square neatly with their own. At the other end of the spectrum, supporters claim that no-platforming and related forms of identity-based activism represent the social justice strategy of a new generation. In essence, this disagreement boils down to competing perspectives about the role of free speech in an open and pluralistic society. Should freedom of expression be upheld as a universal right, restricted only in exceptional cases (e.g. when it can lead to physical harm)? Or should it be subordinated to some other interests or ‘social goods’ (e.g., freedom from offence or psychological suffering)?
There are others still who impugn that no-platforming impinges on free speech per se. Since no one has a right to a platform, they argue, no-platforming does not bear upon freedom of expression at all: the individual in question may still exercise their right to speak freely, just not in the particular (public) context where their platform has been revoked. However, even if we grant that no-platforming is separate from the issue of free speech (and I am not entirely convinced that it is), the question remains of how we ought to determine when no-platform requests are justified and should be accepted, and when they are not and should be denied.
In general, justifications for no-platforming involve a claim of some ‘harm’ being inflicted upon an individual, group, or society at large through the speech in question. Indeed, this principle has been at the core of no-platforming policies since their inception in the 1960s and 1970s. In Britain, for example, the historical remit of no-platforming was limited to groups with known violent or xenophobic views (e.g., fascists and Holocaust deniers) whose publication, it was feared, would incite political mobilisation. The no-platform policy of the British National Union of Students (NUS), for example, has, since its implementation in 1974, traditionally extended to groups considered racist or fascist, like the British National Party and English Defence League. Since the mid-2000s, however, the remit of this policy has burgeoned significantly to encompass individuals and organisations whose views have been judged offensive or damaging to certain groups, for example to transsexuals (as in the case of Julie Bindel) and victims of rape (as in the case of George Galloway).
Yet justifying the restriction of speech on the basis of feeling offended, threatened, or uncomfortable, as today’s proponents of no-platforming are wont to do, clearly entails a far weaker conception of ‘harm’ than, for example, incitement to violence. So, what is the nature of this harm? This is a question that we should rightly expect advocates of no-platforming to answer. Either harm is taking place, in which case it is appropriate to consider whether no-platforming is the correct response to preempt it, or harm is not taking place, which means that no-platformers are justifying themselves on duplicitous grounds, and are attempting to deny platform to those with whom they merely disagree or whose opinions they find unpalatable.
Allegations of the latter cast doubt upon the legitimacy of no-platforming as a whole. Germaine Greer, for example, was the subject of a no-platform petition at Cardiff University on the grounds that her trans-exclusive feminist views were in fact transphobic. Yet her planned lecture, entitled “Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century”, was wholly unrelated to her opinions on transgender issues (which, by her own account, she had no plans to address in the talk). The decision to no-platform Greer therefore appears distinctly punitive — explicit retribution for having dared to voice unpopular views — rather than a genuine attempt to protect vulnerable people from harm.
The case of Maryam Namazie highlights the contradictions of no-platforming even more poignantly. Namazie is a human rights activist, an ex-Muslim and outspoken critic of Islamism. In September 2015, after being invited to speak at Warwick University by the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, she was no-platformed by the student union for being “highly inflammatory” (the decision was ultimately overturned following media scrutiny). A few months later, Namazie was invited to speak at Goldsmiths, University of London, about blasphemy and apostasy in Islam under Islamic State. Despite complaints by the Goldsmiths Islamic Society (ISOC) that her presence would “be a violation to our safe space”, the event went ahead as planned. Yet the way it played out should disturb even the most tenacious advocates of no-platforming. In a video of the event, we see a group of ISOC students — notably male — repeatedly interrupt Namazie, laughing and jeering when she speaks about bloggers being killed and even shutting down her projector when she screens a “Jesus and Mo” cartoon, a satirical comic depicting Jesus and Muhammad. When she finally snaps at her tormentors to “be quiet or get out”, they retort sanctimoniously, “Safe space! Safe space! Intimidation!” As Andrew Anthony observed in The Guardian,
“It’s an almost comically discordant moment. The bearded man shouting “safe space” doesn’t look remotely intimidated. Instead he seems like someone who knows exactly what the approved complaint is to make, someone who is fully aware of his consumer rights.”
What compounds the irony is that Islamic societies across British universities have long been beneficiaries of free speech and have exploited that license to invite hate preachers and Islamic extremists to campus. Given the tangible harms of radicalisation and discrimination against women, Jews and homosexuals that these speakers inspire, one wonders why they have largely slipped under the radar and (with few exceptions) avoided no-platform protests of the same scale as Greer, Namazie and others. If no-platforming were truly about mitigating harm and protecting vulnerable groups, surely homophobic and misogynistic preachers like Haitham al-Haddad and Hamza Tzortzis would be on the priority list. The fact that they are not, and rather, are protected in the name of religious and cultural tolerance, reveals a troubling double standard about what speech is deemed ‘harmful’ by no-platformers.
Indeed, these contrasting examples indicate that the current premise of no-platforming is about something altogether different than preventing harm or suffering. Although no-platforming masquerades as a moral form of activism that strives to effect greater social justice, its inconsistent and selective application exposes a less flattering truth: too often, it is used to silence views that do not conform to the existing groupthink of identity politics. In many cases, no-platforming activists are guilty of moral narcissism — they assume for themselves the prerogative to determine what views may and may not be publicly discussed. This is where no-platforming critically violates free speech: it impinges upon the right of other members of the university community to engage with ideas they want to explore and speakers they want to hear.
Historically, the greatest foes of free speech have always been traditional or conservative forces, those seeking to uphold the status quo or consolidate their power. We recognise them readily: religious authorities and autocratic regimes that rely on intimidation and arbitrary legal processes, if not outright violence, to silence their detractors. Within our own liberal democratic societies, we have been slower to notice the erosion of universal commitment to free speech. Today’s no-platforming activism has led us to believe that there is a fundamental trade-off between upholding free speech on the one hand and protecting those who have been marginalised by society on the other. By this account, free speech is seen a tool of the powerful to sustain their privilege. But this is a false dichotomy: free speech has always been essential to the success of social justice movements. In its present incarnation, no-platforming is not a benevolent form of activism but rather a sanctimonious effort to censor unpalatable views and excoriate the individuals who hold them.