Arguments for no-platforming are strong – but not strong enough to apply to platforms in universities, which is where we learn how to learn.
Debates about free speech on campus follow a predictable pattern. A ‘controversial’ speaker is invited (or a ‘controversial’ topic is discussed). One side complains that letting this speaker speak would be harmful to a certain groups and asks for event to be cancelled. The other side replies with cries of free speech. Finally, the press writes yet another story about little snowflakes.
In these I’ve always taken the view that the event should go ahead, but this debate leaves me uneasy. It leaves me uneasy because on the abstract level I agree with those who wish to censor/no platform.
The no-platformers’ cases is based on two claims (1) certain things are false and (2) speech/ideas have consequences. The pro free speech lot generally respond by saying that (1) we can’t know what is true or false, or that (2) we don’t know it in this case, or they accept that the ideas in question are indeed wrong but claim (3) that known falsehood is not a sufficient reason for censoring them. I think the first of those responses, the assertion of scepticism, is a non-starter; Truth exists. The second is fine as far as it goes. I want to focus on the third.
If you know that an idea is false, why would you allow it to be expressed? There are generally two responses.
The first is that the debate will have negative consequences for the speaker.
The second is that the debate won’t have any adverse consequences for society and those we care to protect.
Why would the debate not have adverse consequences for the speaker? The typical response is that by scrutinising the speakers’ views this will reduce their credibility and make them less popular. My rejoinder to that is LOL.
Firstly, the questions generally asked at such events generally take the same format: “Why are you evil?”. Everyone claps the person asking the question. The speaker responds with “I am not evil”. Team Social Justice think they “destroyed” the speaker and Team Speaker think the speaker “destroyed” the questioner. This does not get us very far. Secondly, if it were really the case that those speakers would come off worse by their appearance, why would they come?
For the other response: that allowing the speaker to express their view will not have adverse consequences. The defender of free speech often seems to think that there will not be consequences or that, if there are, they do not matter. But it seems clear that there can be consequences.
People can change their mind as a result of hearing the speaker. They would then be labouring under a misapprehension and this has consequences. For one they might now vote based on those views and they might contribute to the emergence of social norms which are detrimental. It would clearly be a very bad thing if as a result of hearing a neo-nazi someone became persuaded by these views. In addition, holding wrong views might also be bad for the person holding such views as this might hamper their flourishing.
Indeed, historically this was the main reason for censorship. Whilst the Church always accepted that the act of faith had to be a free one – and so people could not be forced to believe or punished if they did not – it was strongly against the spreading of heresies and used the Inquisition against it. The reason was that the spreading of those falsehoods might lead others who were persuaded by it to Hell. This continued after the Reformation. Indeed Calvin was even harsher on those spreading heresies than the Roman Catholic Church was.
The Enlightenment argued that the State should not be involved in suppressing opinions merely because they are false. This principle is now widely accepted, but censorship by non-State actors continues. Don’t believe me? Try publicly calling for the return of slavery. Sure, you might not be locked up for it, but the social sanctions you will suffer can in many ways be worse.
Does this all mean that no-platforming is OK?
Not quite, or at least – not at universities. Whilst the arguments frequently levelled against it mostly fail, this does not mean that it is a good thing.
One reason is that the people censoring are not infallible; the Catholic Church at least claimed to be infallible in order to justify the Inquisition. But the lack of infallibility is not such a problem, given that no platforming would not take the form of coercive means. The idea could still be expressed elsewhere. So the cost of getting it wrong when censoring (i.e. censoring a view that is actually correct) is not very high.
The better response is that no platforming displays a lack of intellectual virtue. By that I mean that the attitude of the no-platformers, not wanting a view to be expressed, is not conducive to truth seeking.
JS Mill thought that the truth would emerge from the clash of competing ideas. He was not wrong. But what is required for that is not just the clash of competing ideas but also that the people involved (and observing) approach the matter with an interrogatory mind. But the mind must not be interrogatory for the sake of being interrogatory: their desire to interrogate must be oriented to the goal of Truth. As G. K. Chesterton put it:
“Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
But it is not just enough to merely have true beliefs. It is important to understand why one’s beliefs are probably true. Knowledge acquired that way is both more transformative and more secure than truths accepted based on authority. And the best way to do that is by allowing people to hear and confront falsehoods.
But what about the risks of such speech?
The positive aspect, for the interrogative mind, of letting such speech be aired has to be balanced against the risk that this speech can lead to. How this will turn out very much depends on context.
But in a university setting there should be a very strong presumption in favour of allowing all speech which does not incite violence. This is because universities are meant to be places dedicated to seeking the truth. (NB: they are not supposed to be expensive creches for the young unemployed. Their becoming so is a tragic error of contemporary higher ed policy.)
It is at university that the interrogative mind is the most important to cultivate. The no-platformers are right. False ideas do have consequences. This is why it is important to ensure that we have the attitudes that best allow us to seek the truth.
Rajiv Shah is a PhD candidate in Law at the University of Cambridge.
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