Software Developer, Chemist

No-platforming Has Been a Total Disaster

A lectern, coloured in red tones

Primarily, a PR disaster.

Several times over the last couple of years, I have seen this or that public persona decry no-platforming as an impingement upon free speech. In particular, the actions of student bodies on both sides of the Atlantic in obstructing speeches by particular persons has been the source of much ire.

What seems odd to me is that those instigating the no-platforming, and those being no-platformed, both seem to agree that it is because the material being presented is, on some level, “too offensive”.

The actual official bodies of course, vary in their chosen lines. The NUS maintains that the organisations that they actively no-platform are directly opposed to their fundamental values, for instance.

I feel compelled, as I did with my discussion on trigger warnings, to state that I will not be drawn into the many avenues of the discussions which invariably get tied in with this subject in order to (deliberately or otherwise) misframe the issue; for example safe spaces or trigger warnings.

I think that those who protest the forums giving these people spaces in which to present their views, or even simply forbidding it due to some fundamental difference of values have done the no-platforming movement a great disservice by focussing on the wrong thing, and insodoing have opened themselves up to the accusation of censorship.

The reason, I suspect, that everyone has become hung up on how offensive the discussions can be (and they can be) is because that's all they are.

Repeatedly, we have been told by those who fear the supposed over-sensitivityof students, that at least one of the purposes of University is to encounter ideas that challenge you. The implication is that in avoiding the ideas being presented that somehow students are not encountering challenging or new ideas, or ideas which they may disagree with.

Leaving aside those of us who have had the dubious fortune to study anything with the word “quantum” in the title (challenging material and ideas indeed!), students are having extremely challenging conversations, conversations about what it means to be transgender in a post-gender society. What a post-gender socity looks like. What a post-racial society might look like. Are those concepts even achievable, or will they forever be weighted by historical experience. What does it mean to carry racial identity? What about cultural identity? Must those two things by necessity be intersected, or can one exist without the other?

The problem is that in order to find time to debate such things, time must be taken away from older conversations which have already been had. It would be very hard for chemists if they had to move forward whilst making sure that the Bohr Model of the electron was definitely innacurate, or if geologists tried to move forward with their research if they had to keep arguing about the curvature of the Earth or plate tectonics, or biologists about, say, natural selection.

Furthermore, that people should wish to have these genuine challenging conversations couched in welcoming language which draws out those people to whom the discussion pertains should strike us as nothing other than common sense. It is very difficult to learn about the experiences of oppressed persons in our society if we push them away by employing language which such people would associate with unpleasant acts in their lives.

That the Unions do not host such persons as they find distasteful should not surprise us either. The union as an actor, acts on behalf of the students it represents. Unions, like any other hosting venue, have no interest in hosting events which their members have no intention of attending. This again is common sense.

If we maintain that the experience of University is to have ones ideas challenged, and that a necessary component of that is to have these specific ideas presented, then the onus to host that is on the University, and not the unions. If the University crumbles to student pressure, that is on the University, and not the students.

If the universities fail to encourage students that such conversations are, in fact, worthwhile, we have to consider the fact that the conversations may, in fact not be worthwhile, at least as far as the students are concerned. It seems bizarre to me that those who berate students for no-platforming have no sense of irony in saying “You must combat ideas in the same way we tried to combat ideas!”, and insodoing failing to accept that their mode of thought is being challenged.

This irony is compounded only further by the fact that evidence from the sphere of medicine indicates that engaging in debate, however armed with facts you are, is not only a poor way to defeat an idea but may actually be contributing to the sustainence of those ideas. Perhaps the proponents of this notion lack the capacity to have their ideas challenged by the evidence?

The fact is, the cry of no-platforming is not simply “That's offensive”, it is “That has no other quality to it than to be offensive” or perhaps “This is offensive and boring”. At it's worst, it serves to raise awareness about the otherwise hidden values of the persons who come to the fore. Students arare bored of our outdated conversations, and would like to discuss something genuinely interesting and intellectually challenging. The students sadly, have not had the sense of the thing to brand it as such.