“No-Platforming” and the Right to Free Expression

Seán Faye of the UK’s Independent has written a piece defending, on free speech grounds, the practice of “no-platforming”. She wrote the article in response to the debate surrounding Peter Tatchell having apparently been “no-platformed” by National Union of Students‘ LGBT representative Fran Cowling.

Cowling’s refusal to share a debate platform with Tatchell related to “racism” and “transphobia” allegedly manifested by the latter, a life-long LGBT rights campaigner.

Cowling, however, refused to clarify or substantiate her accusations with further detail or evidence when Tatchell contacted her to seek an explanation. It appears her objection to possibly sharing a platform with him was related in part to his criticism of previous attempts by members of Cardiff University’s students union to “no-platform” trans-exclusionary feminist Germaine Greer over her explicit transphobia.

For what it is worth, Greer’s position – although she would, no doubt, reject the term “transphobic” to describe it – relies wholeheartedly upon enforcing the discredited essentialist gender binary and employing “traditional” definitions and stereotypes with regard to her determination as to who is and who isn’t a “real woman”; basically, she believes trans women are not “real women”.

If Tatchell’s criticism of the attempt to “no-platform” Greer is indeed the primary reason for Cowling accusing Tatchell of transphobia, then it appears Cowling may well have committed the fallacy of conflating one’s support for free expression (or support for the provision of a platform simply for the purpose of intellectual debate even) with support for views the mere expression of which is being defended.

There is a stark logical and conceptual distinction between endorsing someone’s view and defending or promoting their right or privilege to say it (as Tatchell and others evidently attempted to do, considering he rejects Greer’s views). Evelyn Beatrice Hall‘s famous quote (often misattributed to Voltaire) is worth recalling:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Anyhow, just like some accused the Cardiff University students union of attempting to stifle Greer’s freedom of expression, certain commentators have argued that for Cowling to “no-platform” or refuse to share a platform with Tatchell similarly amounted to an attack or restriction upon free speech.

Faye challenged this view as follows:

Let us remember when we speak of “free speech” that those arguments presume everyone’s voice has an equal voice in society. Here, Tatchell’s voice carries much more command and weight than that of his young opponent.

[Cowling] believed he had endorsed transphobia and racism by signing an open letter against no-platforming last year. I personally do not believe Tatchell is himself transphobic or racist, but his publicly wounded feelings and superiority about free speech grate.

Tatchell himself has banned meetings of Muslim groups and written on the subject. In the 1990s he advocated the “outing” of gay MPs and public figures, despite the personal harm this would cause them, saying, “In these circumstances, “outing” is queer self-defence. Many of us feel a moral duty to do whatever we can to protect members of our community against victimisation.”

Outing was used as a tactic precisely because Tatchell recognised the power imbalance between himself and powerful closeted MPs.

[Tatchell as an activist] for feminism and gay rights [has] recognised the truth about free speech: free speech is in the eye of the beholder. It is the frequent defence of the oppressor who knows that minorities lack the same power to exercise their own free speech in approved ways.

[Tatchell has] sought to express [his] politics and defend against powerful majorities using whatever tactics they could to rectify an imbalance of power in society in favour of women and gay people. How strange that now [he] scorn[s] this in students and trans people.

No-platforming is as valid a means to exercise free speech as any other. We are not in a declining era of free speech – but we appear to be in a golden age of entitled hypocrisy.

Before proceeding, it ought to be clarified that Faye isn’t quite correct to claim that Tatchell “outed” (in the 1990s) powerful politicians or public figures simply to challenge a power imbalance. Whatever about the morality or legitimacy of what Tatchell did (considering he, no doubt, damaged the careers and reputations amongst “polite” society of many in the public spotlight), his rationale was based, rather, upon what he (rightly, I would argue) perceived as the homophobic hypocrisy of “closeted” politicians who were utilising, for seemingly pragmatic reasons, their positions of power and influence to politically damage or obstruct the efforts of LGBT and pro-gay rights groups.

Of course, the concept of gay rights was far from mainstream in Britain at the time Tatchell engaged in this practice, so “closeted” conformity to or reinforcement of the homophobic status quo was evidently beneficial, under such circumstances, for the careers and upward societal progression of gay politicians and public figures.

“Outing” was, for Tatchell, a means of challenging the hypocrisy of these influential persons, of demanding their engagement or express tolerance and of defending the LGBT community against the harmful effects of their apparent, acquiescent, passive or active homophobia, which was self-evidently detrimental to the victimised LGBT community.

That said, I otherwise broadly agree with Faye’s position. I think she raises a very interesting point and asks us to consider what “free speech” really means; does it mean trampling upon others’ rights and having obligations imposed upon them? I wouldn’t have thought so.

Faye is correct in saying that nobody has a right or entitlement to an audience. When those who “no-platform” do so, even though it may be regarded as a disappointing or unsatisfactory resort or practice for those who would like to see diverse ideas debated, challenged or exposed through rigourous intellectual and critical engagement between adversaries, it remains the right and ultimate discretion of the former to ignore, reject or refuse to engage with the views of others to which they object.

Private citizens are under absolutely no obligation to provide a platform for or share a platform with others, irrespective of whether they agree or disagree with those others’ views. Nobody has an automatic entitlement to be heard, and especially not by a private audience. Newspapers, for example, are not obliged to print every letter they receive to their editor, for example.

In fact, those who appear to insist that an obligation exists for private persons and bodies to extend a platform to others, so as to (purportedly) encourage free expression, are arguably contravening or dismissing the free expression rights of those “no-platformers” who exercise their rights by simply not wanting to be associated with or seen to be assenting to ideas they do not support.

Faye also referenced the fallacious or idealistic assumption by many “free speech absolutists” that everyone’s voice in our society possesses or is accorded equal power. Equality is a theoretical ideal, but, of course, not everyone’s voice has equal power in practice; some people’s voices are marginalised whilst others’ voices are amplified by virtue of the status, social position or institutional privilege they happen to enjoy. This is obviously problematic and not ideal.

Ideally, practical equality would exist, but – in the absence of such being reality – if absolute freedom of expression exists without some means of de jure regulation for the purpose of enhancing equilibrium, it inevitably becomes “regulated”, on a de facto basis, by the monopoly that the more powerful possess over the arena of discourse and, thus, marginalised voices are often drowned out or go unheard.

Of course, this represents somewhat of a paradox, as does (inherently) the reverse or counter notion of regulating expression on a de jure basis with the intention of enhancing “free speech” and diversity or in the hope of protecting a balance with conflicting rights. (For what it’s worth, if you think absolute free speech presently exists, consider laws against “hate speech”, defamation, harassment or trespass, for example, which act to balance the conflicting rights of citizens.) Indeed, there is no guaranteed non-corruptible way of practically enforcing such regulation. Obviously, this is also problematic.

I certainly don’t profess to possess a definitive solution to this interesting paradox but it is nevertheless something I have written on in greater detail – nay, with which I have wrestled – previously.

Update as of 3:00PM on the 23rd of February, 2016: Just to clarify Peter Tatchell’s position, for fear there is any ambiguity in what I have written, I will re-publish here tweets he has sent me:

(Typically, I’m also just now noticing the typo in my own tweet; I misspelled “transphobia”. Bah!)

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