In light of Glasgow University’s recent rector nominations, Donald Marshall and Chris Charnley debate no-platforming. View the for argument here.
During the 2017 elections for Rector of the University of Glasgow, over 3,600 people signed a petition to remove two of the candidates from the hustings. The two nominees, Jordan Peterson and Milo Yiannopoulos, were notorious for their unprogressive views. The petition accused Peterson of transphobia and Yiannopoulos of fascism, among other offences. The petition did not succeed, but the offending candidates lost anyway, claiming fourth place (Yiannopoulos) and fifth place (Peterson). The motivation of the signees is laudable; these candidates threatened to promote discrimination within the Glasgow student community, and their election would have made the University appear old-fashioned, unwelcoming, and a right-wing island in the ocean of modern student politics. But the goal of the petition, which I take to be a kind of no-platforming, was misguided.
One standard case against no-platforming is as follows: people have a right to freedom of speech; no-platforming removes that right; therefore, we should not succumb to no-platforming. In most cases, this is a weak argument. People do have a right to freedom of speech, but freedom of speech is not our only right. We also have a right to decide who to invite to our events because, after all, it’s our event. No-platforming does not limit freedom of speech, because people who are no-platformed remain free to host their own events, start their own newspapers, and even open their own universities, at which they can discuss whatever they like. Only if someone was prevented from publicly communicating across all channels would their right to free speech be removed. The University can decide its own code of values, and it’s well within its rights as an institution to enforce that code amongst its voluntary members. I will assume that no-platforming does not infringe on the right to freedom of speech, at least in most cases.
To come up with a better argument against no-platforming, we must have faith in the link between bigoted views being wrong and it being obvious that such views are wrong. It should be obvious in 2017 Britain that discriminating against people on account of arbitrary characteristics such as gender, race, and sexuality is wrong. That some people do not agree is not evidence that their position is correct; rather, it is evidence that they have not considered the issue thoroughly. The work of debate, and indeed of student elections, then, is to give all views a fair hearing, but also to make them heard in light of the other side’s best arguments. People will be hurt by hearing, say, racist views spoken aloud. However, witnessing their hurt can only better the understanding of a racist who might have otherwise imagined them as something other than human beings.
Giving speakers of all stripes the chance to be heard is good because it stops their supporters feeling persecuted and unheard. What’s abundantly noticeable about some recent political events – Brexit, Trump, etc. – is the divide between those who are supported by the media and those who are not. No-platforming recreates this situation on a small scale. Supporters of the likes of Yiannopoulos and Peterson are probably estranged from the people they live alongside, and therefore able to blame them for their malaise. Making them feel as though they are not listened to will only expand the abyss; instead we must, as communities, hold parliament.
Avoiding debate smells of the fear of being wrong. Promoters of the values of equality and diversity need not fear this; they should fear never getting the chance to change someone’s mind. The left should not no-platform; it should instead welcome the opportunity to make its case, confident in the knowledge that it is right.