No-platforming isn’t a political problem, it’s a human one

Joanna Taylor 4 May 2016

Not a day goes by, it seems, without some article or other in the media condemning the practice of no-platforming. At this stage, a habitual reader of the Daily Mail cannot help but believe that the nation’s student population are intellectual weaklings who opt for the comforting swaddling of a familiar ideology over real engagement with hostile political views. The irony of their reading these stories in a paper dedicated solely to aggressively right-wing rhetoric is presumably lost on them. Meanwhile, Stephen Fry is driven to distraction, and to some rather ugly comments, by what he deems to be the self-pity of abuse victims.

I am myself an opponent of no-platforming. I believe in the power of words to change minds, and profoundly dislike the principle that a simple majority is sufficient to silence us. However, I would like to propose that the current debate over no-platforming is fundamentally flawed by mutual incomprehension. We treat no-platformers as fascists in liberals’ clothing, working to undermine our fundamental rights. This is a grossly unhelpful misrepresentation. The debate calls not for tub-thumping oratory about principle and political thought, but a little basic understanding and human compassion.

Why do people call for no-platforming? A friend of mine who supports the policy recently told me that she did not believe people could be persuaded by rational debate: she represents a whole swathe of frustrated individuals who can feel the cause they love slipping away from them, and do not want to cede what progress they have made. This frustration is genuine and must be addressed. Others point out that the marginalised, by dint of their marginalisation, are already essentially no-platformed by a media uninterested in their voices. This should provoke a debate about diversity in the media, not the accustomed derision.

Others are truly upset by traumatic experiences; rather than chortling about ‘triggering’, we should be offering real sympathy to these people. If a Jewish friend of ours told us that they did not want to listen to a Neo-Nazi speaker, we would not jeer at them for their intellectual weakness. If we start treating proponents of no-platforming as human beings, rather than political ones, with views and emotions rather than insidious political goals, then we might find a universally beneficial consensus: we might be more inclined to exercise our own free speech in defence and support of the marginalised, rather than wielding it to castigate them for their moral inferiority.

The majority of people read the newspapers that correspond to their own political preferences. The majority of us like Facebook pages that promulgate our own points of view. The majority of us mainly befriend those who share our perspectives. Equally, not an eyelid was batted when the Equality Act of 2010 outlawed hate speech. Many of those who vocally oppose no-platforming have with equal relish endorsed calls for student unions to disaffiliate from the NUS and so not engage in debate with the views of Malia Bouattia. As a society, we constantly betray our collective unwillingness to confront and engage with alien views.

If we can just commit to a little introspection, perhaps we might recognise that the debate over no-platforming is not divided into one camp of fearless defenders of liberal values and another of fanatical faux-leftist totalitarians, but between two groups of people, with largely identical aims, disagreeing on the precise ways of achieving them, but perfectly capable of understanding and respecting one another. In short, it is time to inject a little humanity into the debate over no-platforming.