No to No Platform
It’s now forty years since 1968. It was a year that began with the Tet Offensive pinning down US imperialism in Vietnam, and went on to see the French May shake the Gaullist state and the Prague Spring chip away at the Soviet edifice. The international solidarity of that era marked the zenith of student radicalism. But the deferred victories and outright defeats that ’68 was also witness to, led some to regress to a muddle-headed pseudo-liberalism. The radical demand for absolute free speech on campus mutated into a censorious mentality that cared more for avoiding ‘offence’ than taking up the arguments and winning them. The cowardly No Platform policy, that bans speakers from racist and fascist groups such as the BNP and the National Front from appearing on campus, is a product of this historic shift.
Granting a group freedom of expression does not lead to an obligation to give them a platform. But the absolute restriction on anyone doing so is wrong in principle and counterproductive in practice. Defenders of the policy often begin by reeling off the litany of violent acts committed by racists and fascists. Well, one could hardly have failed to notice that far-right groups contain more than their fair share of ex-cons, small-time gangsters and accredited psychopaths. But the laws against violence and physical intimidation could still be applied without the No Platform policy, that’s not the issue here.
I’ve heard many defenders of the policy condescendingly argue that figures like David Irving and Nick Griffin are just too ‘articulate’ and ‘persuasive’ to be allowed access to a large audience. Yet to leave such figures to just preach unchallenged in dank Dagenham basements is to dispense with one of the most powerful tools in the anti-fascist arsenal. For when given a platform far-right speakers very often expose and embarrass themselves. I remember Nick Griffin’s 4am shaming at the hands of David Dimbleby as one of the rare highlights of the mediocre 2005 election. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier and anti-semite, provided another fitting example of this recently when he appeared at Columbia University. Rather overlooking the long tradition of homoerotic Persian literature, Iran, he claimed, doesn’t have gays. These anecdotes shouldn’t be surprising; those with ridiculous views will make fools of themselves.
‘Know your enemy’ the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wisely encouraged. The failure to follow this became clearer to me at a debate on this subject during Rise Against Racism week. Nick Griffin, one of my opponents claimed, would turn up steaming and baldly declare that white people were better than black people. Come on, I countered, he doesn’t give the game away that easily. The caricature of the slobbering monster is as unhelpful as that of the extraordinarily persuasive debater. Only by challenging fascists and racists as they actually are, not as we imagine them to be, can we hope to shame and refute them.
But it is John Stuart Mill’s imperishable On Liberty that best distils the indispensability of unrestrained argument. It is only in conflict with opposing views, the great liberal argued, that we fully understand and refine what we ourselves believe. It keeps our principles alive and dynamic. Without this open conflict the reasoned views of one generation can ossify into the prejudice and dogma of the next. Anti-racist and anti-fascist views become held not because they have been forged in the heat of dialectical exchange, but merely because they represent the received wisdom of the age. Thus, I need not make the outlandish claim that racists and fascists will be argued out of their views for the purpose of argument to hold. A leftist supporter of the policy does not presumably expect to convert, say, their Thatcherite opponent when they argue and debate with them, but they still do just that.
Throughout human thought from the secular to the sacred, the necessity of free exchange has been recognised. When asked to name his favourite dictum, Karl Marx, a master of the dialectical method, replied ‘Doubt everything’. Even the authoritarian Catholic Church always heard from the devil’s advocate at canonization hearings, an office they are now all the poorer for abolishing. When confronted by racism today far too many liberals lapse into platitude, ‘We’re a tolerant, multicultural society now’, or tautology, ‘Why is racism bad? Because it’s racism.’ Very few can offer clinching rational or scientific arguments against it, because they haven’t have had to make the arguments often enough.
Most of the points for the No Platform policy, the claim that we can never tolerate the intolerant for instance, also apply to wider society. Do the policy’s supporters aspire to the historically disastrous strategy of banning fascist groups outright? We should be told.
The Students’ Union claims to be worried about apathy. In combating it the union might want to begin by revoking this policy; the great protest and scorn that would track any fascists would do much to override apathy. For now, we are hamstrung by an approach that does much to pander to the far-right claim of a ‘liberal conspiracy’. It’s time to replace a policy of bureaucratic motions with one of open argument.
Published in the Warwick Boar, 07/02/08