NO PLATFORM AND THE AMPLIFICATION OF THE STUDENT VOICE

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by Lucy Auger

NUS’ ‘No-Platform’ policy is the refusal to allow ‘racists or fascists’ to speak at NUS events or alongside NUS representatives. Bearing in mind that this policy is often conflated with attempts by individual Students’ Unions to ban certain speakers from their campuses, it has been dubbed by many as an attack on free speech, and further confirmation that the ‘intolerant student left’ have become more concerned with hiding in their progressive echo-chambers than with serious, healthy debate.

On the contrary. When students petitioned Cardiff SU to cancel a talk by Germaine Greer to show their condemnation of her advocacy of trans-exclusionary feminism, and refusal to accept that trans women are women, they amplified the voices of both Germaine Greer and the students fighting against her. The story became caught up in the debate around no platforming, and as a result, it is often used to attack no-platforming despite Germaine Greer not actually having been banned. When the outraged reports and opinion pieces began to appear, Greer’s transphobic statements seeped through onto the pages of The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Huffington Post among many others, but what followed suit was the increasingly pressing debate surrounding radical feminists and their often problematic views on the place of trans people in feminism. For every paper that churned out the same monotonous, dreary tale about universities no longer being a forum for debate, a discussion was sparked about trans-exclusionary feminism, and the debate was lifted off campuses and onto a national stage.

Greer was not denied a voice. In fact, her talk went ahead. But the media reaction allowed Greer to vocally defend her views whilst the campaign for trans rights was briefly given a national platform. Her talk was not cancelled (and while we’re at it, it’s worth pointing out that a recent survey of Students’ Unions showed that no speaker has been banned from a campus in the last year), but if this is the reaction to a simple petition to keep campus a safe space for trans students, imagine the publicity we could harness if we actually did start no-platforming.

Student-led protests are largely ignored or misreported by the media. Campaigns on campuses are accused of being inward-looking and detached from the real world. So for student activists searching for ways to rock the boat, you can see how the thought of journalists waiting with bated breath for students to justify their latest, so-called no-platforming decision, would seem like an attractive prospect.

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When the decision of an Students’ Union to ban speakers or cancel talks on campus, or rather, in most instances, the unfounded allegation of a Students’ Union doing so, is attacked purely on the grounds that it shuts down healthy debate, the argument for no-platforming is only strengthened. Each time this happens, so-called defenders of free speech kick up such a fuss that the debate gets thrust onto a national platform. It is clear that the promise of even a few lines in a national newspaper is an attractive prospect for students who are so used to having their voices limited to shouting down these bigots in half-empty lecture theatres late into the night.

‘Stop censoring me!’ they cry from their double paged spread in The Sunday Times.

There’s a distinct irony, of course, to the statements of indignation from individuals like Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer that have started appearing on our Facebook and Twitter feeds. ‘Stop censoring me!’ they cry from their double paged spread in The Sunday Times. Watching these public figures who many see as icons of liberation, use their platform to criticise underrepresented students struggling to make their voices heard, leaves a sour taste to say the least.

Peter Tatchell was not no-platformed, but he was apparently so offended that not every lgbt+ person would jump at the chance to share a platform with him, that he has decided to act as though he has been. Fortunately, because so many media outlets seem to have been so deeply offended by this case of no-platforming, however false it is, it is serving to be a perfect example of why we need to maintain and even extend our no-platform policy. Many LGBT+ students share concerns that Tatchell holds a warped view of homophobia within Islam, and that he has shown tacit agreement with Greer, Julie Bindel, Kate Smurthwaite and others, through his defence of their public complaints over having been supposedly no-platformed. The NUS LGBT+ Officer’s decision to not share a platform with Tatchell has brought these concerns to the fore, and as a result, another important debate is being had about whether the LGBT+ liberation movement is doing enough to resist complacency, embrace intersectionality and empower the most marginalised groups in our community.

Admittedly, my defence of no-platforming is partly selfish. For many students, myself included, coming to university is a liberating experience precisely because it allows us to create a space that briefly filters out the aggressive hum of bigotry from the outside world. For the first time, I feel as though I can shut the door firmly in the faces of any racist, fascist or bigot I don’t have the time for. We have to endure these objectionable views in every other walk of life; in parliament, in the media, and in our own communities, but on our campuses we have the opportunity to say no to these people, and that is an opportunity that I will fight to hold on to. As a first year student living on campus I feel absolutely that the university is my home, and as students, we should feel no shame in slamming our front door on anyone we like.

Featured image © Alex  Lake / Sunday Times 

8 thoughts on “NO PLATFORM AND THE AMPLIFICATION OF THE STUDENT VOICE

  1. No platforming or disallowing anyone to speak is intellectually lazy. If you don’t like something someone says, you have an opportunity (in all walks of life) to use your own voice against them.. Saying you want to feel safe on campus is a no-brainer – we all want to feel safe in life, but just plainly stopping people from talking will not create safety – enforced silence can of itself incite violence, which is the exact opposite of progressive debate..

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  2. Chiming in to address some arguments made in the comments here. First of all, a couple people have mentioned how there are no safe spaces in ‘the real world’. Strange – last I checked universities were part of the real world. A pretty influential part too, hence the major attention being given to this debate. If there really aren’t safe spaces in the world, then surely we should be working to create them in the communities we have control over. And once we’ve done that on our campuses, it doesn’t follow that we’ll stop learning how to debate and challenge bigotry. You need pretty much the same set of skills to debate with someone who holds an extreme, offensive opinion as you do to debate with someone perfectly reasonable who you happen to disagree with about economic policy or whatever. We can still learn these skills at uni without having to lock horns with people in the former group.

    In most cases, the point of no-platforming is not just to protect ‘oversensitive’ students who feel threatened by the expression of certain prejudices. The clue’s in the name – the point is not to offer a platform to a certain opinion. No-platforming as a tactic is more like civil disobedience or boycotting than it is a way to control debate. If I choose to buy The Sun, I’m putting my money and tacit support behind a fundamentally bigoted and misguided form of reporting. Likewise, if my students’ union hosts The Sun’s editor as a speaker at one of their events, they’re offering tacit support to its way of operating as well. There is no such thing as a neutral platform. Any event that features pre-arranged speakers who are specifically chosen to participate puts some people on a platform over others, and this is an inescapably political act. In some cases, as with the UKIP and Marsden examples given above, putting speakers on this platform prevents them from being adequately challenged, and I agree that it is these kind of events that should be most strongly opposed. In other cases a problematic speaker may be challenged by other members of a panel, or by an audience, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve gained political capital of a sort by being invited onto the platform in the first place. And it also doesn’t change the fact that people who don’t attend the event will potentially see that speaker’s views as being more legitimate as a result of hearing that they spoke at a prestigious event such as a UEA panel. The boycott analogy still holds, I think – you might argue that we shouldn’t object to our campus shop and other outlets selling The Sun, because they’ll still have to contend with the free market like the other papers, and eventually the educated, left-leaning Guardian and Independent readers who know the truth of things will convince everyone else of their wrongness and beat the tabloids out of the market. Well, we all know how that’s been working out.

    To return to the main point of the article, I think it does a great job of emphasising that no-platforming is a political tactic (just as much as yes-platforming is, of course). Like it or not, a university event hosting relatively well-known figures, like Tatchell or Greer or whoever else, in which the proper level of debate and challenging takes place and in which everyone present learns to be less bigoted, will not make waves in the media. Hell, plenty of excellent and inspiring debates at UEA don’t even make the Eastern Daily Press. It’s often argued that no-platforming prevents opinions from being challenged, but it makes the news because it is a major challenge to the status quo. It is a disobedient, rebellious, radical way of showing students’ disagreement with certain views, and Lucy is absolutely right to point out that it raises the debate to a higher level for exactly that reason.

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  3. As a mature student, I’ve had this discussion at my university. I don’t believe in giving racists, homophobes and transphobes a platform to preach from, but I DO believe in having them as part of a panel with both people who oppose their views. and those who are in the middle. Whenever I say this, the response, “But this is our home and we deserve to feel safe here” always comes up.

    The fact that it’s the students’ home is something that can be used to our advantage. If the contentious panellist steps out of line, then they need to be reminded that they are the guest in our home, so if they fail to behave respectfully, they will be asked to leave. That should be the definition of a safe space as it’s a safe space to learn how to respond to those whose ideas and beliefs are offensive, not a place where homophobia etc doesn’t exist. There is no such space and the creation of one via no-platforming is artificial. The presence of the other panellists who have debate experience is essential. If the views of the controversial panellist are really offensive, they will be forced to defend them, which in my experience they can find difficult. They can inadvertently reveal in a short space of time the weakness and stupidity of their position. Give them enough rope to hang themselves, I say. I definitely don’t believe they should have a sole platform, because that would allow them to make untrue and unchallenged statements as if they were true.

    The problem with no-platforming as a strategy is twofold. Firstly, in the real world outside of university, there are no safe spaces. There were no safe spaces at all when I was young, so I and others in the same age group had to learn how to debate/defend ourselves without a safety net. If this skill is not learned in the university where there is a degree of protection, today’s students will have to learn the hard way as we had to and it’s completely unnecessary. The other problem is the possibility that not everything a potential speaker says/will say is offensive, but one part of their ‘arsenal’ (for want of a better word) is very inflammatory. I’m thinking specifically of Germaine Greer.

    I personally think she has it completely wrong and she has little understanding of transgenderism. That doesn’t mean everything she says needs to be suppressed. If that happens, everything she’s said or published, including ‘The Female Eunuch’ is in danger of becoming airbrushed out of history. As a History student, I would consider that an an absolute travesty.

    It also means that her opinion goes unchallenged because no one is allowed to debate it with her, which in turn doesn’t give her the opportunity to change her mind. I personally would love to debate this with her as I hand on heart believe that transwomen have their own painful path to womanhood and they well and truly earn their stripes. Trans and cis women take different routes but end up at the same place. I have arguments to back this up as well. Even if her views are entrenched, that doesn’t mean we don’t try. If we can’t sway her, who knows, there may be someone in the audience whose views change as a result of the debate.

    But it’s not just Germaine Greer. It’s getting to the point now when half the time people have no idea why they’ve been no-platformed. They can’t find out why either, because they’ve become persona non gratia and no one will talk to them. This is not a playground where we say to those we don’t like “I’m not talking to you”, so everyone needs to grow up. Our future depends on it.

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  4. This article is factually inaccurate and repeats the typical NUS distortions. I never said or complained that I was no-platformed. I also never complained that Fran Cowling refused to share a platform with me. I defended her right to NOT speak along side me:
    http://www.petertatchell.net/free_speech/free-speech-is-under-attack-in-uk-universities.htm

    My objection was that Fran made false allegations that I am racist and transphobic, and her equally false claim that she was acting on behalf of the NUS membership who, she dishonestly claimed, believe that I am racist and transphobic. The NUS membership never made any such ruling and I was not on the NUS no-platform list. For nearly three weeks, I privately contacted Cowling asking her for evidence for her vile allegations or to withdraw them. She refused. That’s why I went public.

    The above article rebukes me for signing an Observer letter that defended free speech, including the free speech of people I strongly disagree agree with on trans and who I have repeatedly criticised, such as Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer and Julie Burchill.
    http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2015/feb/14/letters-censorship?CMP=twt_gu

    This letter did not utter a word of criticism of trans people, let alone oppose their equal human rights.

    Supporting free speech does NOT mean endorsing the content of that speech. As the German communist, Rosa Luxemburg, argued: freedom of speech means nothing if it does not exist for the person who thinks differently.

    Free speech does not equate with allowing bigotry to pass unchallenged. It should always be refuted and protested. The most effective way to do this is by defeating bigoted ideas in open debate and thereby winning the public to oppose intolerance. No-platforms, bans and censorship don’t work. They suppress bigotry but fail to expose and counter it.

    Thank you and best wishes, Peter

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    • Exposing and countering arguments is no failsafe, as the BNP’s surge in popularity after Nick Griffins question time appearance showed. Students go to university to get a degree, not to constantly debate C list opinion peddlers for the good of society. I have written previously on this site about the irony of claiming recent events across SU’s as ‘censorship’ and also about the expectation that students continually welcome bigots in to their homes in order to debate them. See here https://thenorwichradical.com/2016/01/14/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-fucking-student-bubble/ and here https://thenorwichradical.com/2015/02/26/freeze-peach-2/
      I would be interested to know what you think about all angles of this argument rather than expressing the same moderate party line at every opportunity.

      Thank you and best wishes,
      Robyn

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      • On the BNP point, I can’t help but feel you’ve got it the wrong way round. The Question Time appearance, (which featured an array of speakers from across the political spectrum universally rounding on and denouncing Griffin) and the subsequent exposing, countering and refuting of the BNP’s hateful ideology showed the party for what it was and helped hasten its implosion. After failing to withstand the force of public argument the BNP no longer exists as a political party, and its former leader is a well-known national joke and embarrassment.

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      • As Rich H says, it was the ‘Question Time’ debate that sealed the fate of the BNP. Far from increasing in popularity, the BNP imploded.

        Students (myself included) do go to university to get a degree. No one has suggested that students should risk their degrees in order ‘to constantly debate C list opinion peddlers for the good of society’. While universities have been the traditional home of intellectual debates for centuries, they are by no means the only possible venues. Attendance isn’t compulsory either, so if on a particular day you couldn’t face the b*llshit spouted by the aforementioned C list opinion peddlers (and who could blame you), there will be other students who are up for a fight. That’s one of the good things about students; we all have each other’s backs.

        It’s also a bit unfair to simply dismiss the idea of holding debates because you believe students are too busy with their degrees to participate. Some may well be, but a lot of students would be very interested. If you take the debate out of the debate and only allow speakers you deem inoffensive on campus, you might as well get them to read us a bedtime story. Like it or not, there will be students who agree with the more contentious speakers. If they don’t have the opportunity to attend debates and see the speaker they support taken down, as potential BNP voters witnessed Griffin’s catastrophic fall on ‘Question Time’, they will never be made aware of the obvious flaws in that particular ideology. This isn’t for the good of society (well, not in the short term), it’s for the good of students.

        As for welcoming them into our homes, I can see what you’re saying but it’s stretching it a little bit. Halls of residence are definitely students’ homes, but lecture theatres? I went to see Richard Dawkins speak at our uni a few months ago and there are people who definitely find his views offensive. I’ve already said that it’s not compulsory, so not every single student was expected to ‘welcome’ him on campus, or any speaker for that matter. Some students didn’t even know he was there. I’ve only just paid attention to your pen name, and it appears we are at the same university. Anyway, there is no way to protect students from bigots. Lee Marsden spoke at the Julian Study Centre last year and made an extremely offensive comment about atheists. As he had the platform to himself it wasn’t a debate, so his comment went unchallenged. I sat there with steam coming out of my ears and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

        There are skills to be learned from debate. Please don’t take offence at this because it’s not intended as an insult. If you had participated in or were in the audience of more debates, then you wouldn’t argue that ‘students are too busy with their degrees’ to shut down the possibility of debates being held on campus. This argument is very weak as it can be demolished in seconds with even a partial list of all the extra-curricular activities students DO have time for.

        If you don’t want to take part, that is entirely your prerogative and I would defend your right to abstain to the hilt. But some of us would like to take part, even if it’s only because we don’t believe they deserve an easy ride. Their views deserve a head on challenge. So while I objected to the UKIP candidate speaking on campus last year, it was because it had been done via the back door and it was proposed as a sole speaker, pontificating to a captive audience. I would have loved to see them as part of a panel as it becomes obvious really quickly that UKippers have no experience of political debating. They flounder all over the place. They’ve even been known to scream loudly on live radio for the other participants to shut up because they’ve been owned and have no other comeback.

        I understand that your position is born out of a desire to protect students, I really do. So do I, which is why I want them to learn how to own the C List bigots in a safe environment. Sticking our heads in the sand like ostriches will not make the bigots in society go away. The answer lies in students having the confidence and skills to defend themselves and that won’t happen without practice. It reminds me of mother cats who bring half dead mice to their kittens to practice hunting. I would love to be able to bring down the C list bigots and give them to the younger students to finish them off. Metaphorically speaking obviously. I want students to be able to go out into the world confident that they would be able to handle an A list bigot.

        As as far as Peter Tatchell is concerned, maybe ‘censorship’ was the wrong word. Learning is a two-way street, and perhaps he was not just denied the option of speaking to students, he was denied the opportunity of learning from them as well. I know that’s not our responsibility, but we can’t expect him to understand where students are coming from if we don’t engage in a two way debate.

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  5. I really have a problem with parts of the argument presented here. I can understand that perhaps students may feel bitter about the lack of representation they get in the mainstream media compared to that of the well-known figures in the liberation movements. However, surely facing the views of Greer or Tatchell and laying out your reasons for why you think you disagree with etc would perhaps be beneficial in the future as they could provide a platform for students/student officers etc to be able to increase coverage on the unfortunately marginalised progressive debates?

    The thing that is the clincher for me is that it seems counter intuitive within campaigns for social change/liberation for views to be no platformed and ignored rather than challenged and progressed. I would understand if Greer came out with violence-inciting attacks on the trans community, but to me it doesn’t seem like she did (although i’m not denying that someone could be offended). But being offended by someone’s view or not liking what they have said is not the only prerequisite for labelling something hate-speech and is not sufficient alone to no-platform (in accordance with NUS policy right?).

    There must be a separation within liberation movements of what some superficially don’t accept (but what can actually be debated and positive outcomes produced) and what should be vehemently challenged and “no platformed” (which is my mind has to be extremism which incites violence).

    I do however agree that we should “resist complacency, embrace intersectionality and empower the most marginalised groups in our community”, but I think a great way to do that is not simply block out those who’s opinions are seen as not radical enough OR controversial within the liberation movements themselves. Ultimately this shows to the wider public that there is a weakness within the movements because they are arguing and fighting internally instead of challenging an external status quo. It is too easy (especially after my experiences at uni) to become caught up with the internal politics of the movements/campaigns within the far left, that we actually forget what we are all fighting for.

    Your article has prompted an interesting debate in me and it would be great if someone could correct anything they think I misunderstand or potentially challenge me with things I have missed out!

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