Freedom from speech: Does ‘no-platforming’ have a place?

It has been branded ‘cultural policing’ and an attack on free speech, but some believe in the right to ban people from speaking in certain circumstances

Consensus can be tougher than conflict. We present a complicated issue to two thought leaders and ask them to respond to each other’s views.

The idea of ‘no-platforming’ comes from the conviction that particular viewpoints – particularly those that could cause harm to minorities – should not be aired in public. Divisive figures such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage have forced the issue into the spotlight in recent months, and student bodies are among those choosing to censor speakers. We ask: can our minds be truly opened when debate is closed down?

Prejudice should not be given a platform

Matt Kite imageMatt Kite

Philosophy student at the University of Cambridge, writer and campaigner

If we try to give everyone a platform, we will always fail. There are simply not enough soapboxes and too few audiences to be able to amplify every voice. Not everyone is able to be heard in the public conversation because there are as many perspectives as there are people. Some voices get broad attention; some get drowned out. That is an inevitability.

So when we try to listen to every point of view, in the hope that the power of debate will whittle down ideas to those that are objectively the best, we are always kidding ourselves. Not every idea gets the same hearing and which ideas are listened to is determined not by their quality but by the agenda of the people who control platforms. Because that power is clustered in the same places as other forms of power, the result is that the same people choose the same voices to spread the same old ideas that make up our stale conversations.

The only way to really improve the selection of voices that get heard is with positive action. There is no neutral option. Either we choose to give a spotlight to the same views that have formed the status quo, however prejudiced or offensive they may be, or we choose not to.

We could choose instead to give a platform to people who are ordinarily excluded. We could do that not by shouting at the hateful people who take up so much space in what could be productive conversations, but simply by not inviting them. The only reliable way to move on from prejudice is simply not to give it a platform.

We could instead give a platform to people who are ordinarily excluded

Kate SmurthwaiteKate Smurthwaite

Feminist and comedian

I’m not completely against no-platforming, but I think it should be a last resort. It makes sense to censor those who promote violence or hatred. But we tread a dangerous line when it is used to silence opinions different from our own.

Two years ago, I was scheduled to perform my one woman comedy show Leftie Cock Womble at a London university. The show is about free speech. It doesn’t call for free speech at all costs. It says it is a right but that it is difficult to draw clear lines between free speech and issues such as bullying.

My work with survivors of the sex industry led me to support the Nordic model, which seeks to reduce harm in the sex industry by decriminalising those who sell sex while criminalising those who pay for it.

It’s not the most controversial opinion I have. I think we should scrap all faith schools and make abortion freely available. But it was my view on the Nordic model that the organisers objected to. Despite the fact that I don’t discuss prostitution in the show, it was cancelled at one day’s notice due to the student union being “in support of the sex industry”.

What did this achieve? My reputation was dragged through the media and my career has never fully recovered. The comedy industry in the UK often airs deeply misogynistic material. Jokes about rape, disability, transgender, sexuality and race can be heard across the country. In contrast, look at some of those recently denied a platform: myself, Maryam Namazie, Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer – all women criticising patriarchal power structures. Whatever the moral case, no-platforming isn’t working if the women challenging sexism are being silenced.

We tread a dangerous line when we silence opinions different to our own

Kate’s response to Matt:

No-platforming is when a speaker is deliberately denied a platform. It has nothing to do with positive choices when booking people for an event. I would love comedy promoters to adopt a 50:50 gender split policy, for example. Some male acts would get booked a little less frequently and some women would be given a chance that they don’t often get. It wouldn’t deny anyone a platform.

I’m all in favour of clubs, groups or events having a booking policy. Conservative politicians shouldn’t be invited to speak at Jeremy Corbyn rallies; that’s not denying them a platform. They can have their own rallies. But no-platforming is about individuals, like me, being declared ‘too toxic’ to be allowed to speak, on any subject, under any circumstances.

This is where power and privilege come in. We have all expressed views with which others will disagree. Who gets to decide which opinions are tolerable and which are not?

Matt’s response to Kate:

Decisions about who to allow a platform and who to not are where things get complicated. I’ve never seen Kate’s show and I won’t presume to say whether in her case it was the right decision. Even though making a noise about ‘no-platforming’ someone is self-defeating, since it can only bring them attention. But I would uphold the right of those who legitimately control a platform to make decisions of that sort, just as a magazine editor has the right to decide what they want in an edition. That kind of editorial decision will always exclude someone, so we should embrace the chance to exclude people for valid reason. Where disagreement is the only basis for this, then no-platforming can cause harm.

I suspect that Kate wouldn’t be on my list of people not to invite to an event, but for others she would. In the cases at least where we have a stronger reason, I hope we might agree that no-platforming can do real good.

Graphic: Studio Blackburn