Guest Post: In defence of no-platforming

Every now and again in the comments sections under the videos I upload, there’ll be an insightful, perceptive and well-argued response (amidst many other comments which make Private Eye’s “From The Message Boards” look positively sane by comparison). The (non-italicised) comment under the line below was posted by Guido Bos under the “Science in a ‘post-truth’ world” video I uploaded for the Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics module a couple of weeks ago. 

No-platforming has been in the news throughout 2016 due, in no small part, to a certain beyond-narcissistic, self-aggrandising, rent-a-gob pundit who’s the current poster boy for the alt-right. I am, of course, talking about the legend-in-his-own-lunchtime that is  Milo Yiannopoulos.  Milo is, in essence, a bargain-basement Katie Hopkins. (Or perhaps that should be that Hopkins is a bargain-basement Milo? It’s a little difficult to tell when they’re both racing to the bottom at such a pace). His raison d’etre is simply to stir up as much controversy as possible in order to market what’s most important to him: Milo.

Yiannopoulos’ US speaking tour has generated torrents of controversy and he’s been barred from speaking at a number of universities. His most recent hate-filled diatribes against transgender people — where, in one case, he petulantly, aggressively, and despicably targetted an individual student —  have been designed, of course, to be as provocative as possible. Many student groups/unions have aimed to no-platform Yiannopoulos on this basis.

I have always had major misgivings about no-platforming. Not only is it troublesome in terms of locking out opposing opinions — of particular concern on university campuses where debate and discussion should be the lifeblood of everything we do — but it also can be immensely counter-productive when it comes to the likes of Yiannopoulos. No-platforming Milo and his ilk feeds directly into the culture of victim-hood and martyrdom that runs through the entire alt-right movement. They will exploit the ban as a draconian, Orwellian, monstrous attack on their freedom of speech.

Guido, however, makes some very important counter-arguments in his guest post below. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. (And it’s really not too often I can say that about comments left under YouTube videos.) I’ll address the questions Guido puts to me at the end of the piece below in a future post. For now, I’ll simply note that targeting an individual student in the odious and cowardly way Yiannopoulos did at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee crosses an exceptionally important line.


I often see the concept of no-platforming framed entirely as “people not capable of dealing with ideas that contradict them”. And in a purely academic sense I agree this is bad. If there’s a dispute between two fields in say, a scientific field (STEM or social) one side shouldn’t just go “oh we should never listen to the opposition & ban ’em from our school!”. However in the cases where I’ve read about stories of no-platforming or speakers being protested, frequently the objections to the discussion have little to do with the substance of the debate but rather … side issues.

I want to say the categories I’ve seen in large part are:

[1] Unequal representation of views. A 1-on-1 debate in an academic setting on the earth being round or flat would be absurd for a simple reason: a flat earth is the most fringe, out there non-scientific belief ever. The very idea it’s worth having a big academic discussion on the possibility of the earth being flat would just be such a misuse of funding and resources. Would you agree that some positions are so inherently non-scientific and so fringe that providing them a platform would be ridiculous simply for what they are?

[2] Style over substance debates (in the ballpark of post-truth). A lot of evolutionary biologists advice against debating creationists/ID proponents for a general audience, for a simple reason: A debate where the rules and topic aren’t particularly tight greatly benefit the spread of misinformation/dirty tactics. While an open discussion on ideas is in itself fine, a lot of creation/id related debates end in that particualr side just trying to spread as much misinformation as is humanly possible, in as little time as possible.

I know many people who are uncomfortable with no-platforming (like Richard Dawkins) strongly hold the view [or held, not sure if it changed] that if the format invites for a clear spread of non-academic misinformation, giving particular people a platform will only result in misinformation. There’s a big difference between critically examining a singular selected claim by a creationist/id group and teaching students to critically examine counter arguments in an academic environment. (I’ve had to do that for a test, critically examine an ID pamphlet & point out the fallacies/misrepresentation of evolution) OR giving a platform to a non-academic viewpoint to basically spread their misinformation nearly unchallenged.

A few things I have in mind here are things like the “gish gallop” (100 things wrong with evolution on a single powerpoint slide, making it literally impossible to disprove all of em) But also: Phil Mason’s debate with Ray Comfort … like I’m obviously more on Mason’s side on the topic but … imagine if that conversation was held in front of a neutral audience of students not read up on the topic? A slick debater like Comfort would have far more sway than … whatever Mason was trying to do.

[3] Ethical concerns In a number of cases protests or demands for no-platforming had less to do with the particular topic and more with the ethics or background of the person in question. Say that a speaker gets invited to speak on engineering, but they’re infamous for basically talking online about how gay people deserve to burn & the person in question relates to certain countries having the death penalty for homosexuality.

If a school actively invites someone & students have issues with this not because of the topic, but because they have significant ethical concerns related to the background of a speaker, would you agree that it’s understandable/acceptable for them to at least protest this? (And for the school to switch speakers if they agree with the sentiment?) There are plenty of things you can fill in here, ranging from a speaker having white nationalist ties, just vaguely discriminatory twitter activity or a situation, we’ve actually had here in the Netherlands, where an actual murderer, gangster, and kidnapper was made the guest of a college tour program: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willem_Holleeder )

Personally I’m not in favor of “Oh schools should just invite anyone, for any reason, at any time, with any background”, not necessarily because I think students shouldn’t be “challenged” but because I expect a level of quality control and respect. If a school I worked at/college I studied at decided to give an open platform to someone whose entire talk is about how “Hitler was right all along”, I’d be absolutely pissed. That has little to do with not wanting to be challenged & more with common decency. Anyway, I was curious (mostly based on those three points) if there are situations where you’d agree/argue that a speaker is indeed not qualified and that providing them a platform to speak would be a mistake? Where exactly would you draw the boundaries between “challenging” students & simply inviting people who don’t belong in an academic setting?

Thanks for reading and kind regards, Guido

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: In defence of no-platforming”

  1. Apologies that there’s a few mistakes in the post (particularly using “no-protesting” where I meant to use no-platforming);

    I didn’t expect my YT comment to get elevated to a blog post somewhere. 🙂

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  2. Yes, all of this, wonderful!

    A kind of corollary to the use of resources is controversial speakers with significant speaking fees, as well as the cost involved in hosting a speaker (the space provided, costs for security, administrative costs in hosting an event). So in all cases, especially in a for-profit university setting, where the students are basically funding the invited speaker, I’d say they should have a significant say in who should and should not be allowed to speak at their university. (A concern that may almost disappear in cases when the university is offering a smaller venue for some fringe-interest speaker, where the costs could be negligable and not fully relevant, especially in a publicly-funded university setting).
    =8)-DX

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  3. No-platformers have good reasons and probably the best intentions. Why should, say, Holocaust deniers, or indeed Creationists be allowed to air falsehoods in academic settings? Didn’t Richard Dawkins want Creationists out of academia, and isn’t he hypocritical when he’s now against no-platforming.

    Here’s another argument. People often say that killing another human was something reprehensible. But wouldn’t you want to defend youself when you are about to be killed yourself, and isn’t it possible that some special circumstance exists where taking a life is perhaps acceptable? Aren’t many hypocrites who assert they were against murder, when they would under special circumstances kill someone themselves?

    I hope you see what I did there. But I spell it out: the argument against No Platforming wasn’t about creationists, Holocaust deniers, or flat-earthers. The no-platforming cases that sparked and fanned the discussion are people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Maryam Namazie, i.e. so-called “Islamophobes” who are Ex-Muslim secularists; feminists of a disliked flavour, i.e. anti-intersectionalists or TERFs, famous older generation feminists who are now at odds with trans-activism or MRAs and conservatives and such. It’s a mixed bag, that have only in common that they are political or ideological opponents of so-called “social justice warriors”.

    A democratic pluralist, and I count myself into that, has any reason to object to no-platforming of prima-facie pluralistic viewpoints that are precisely not systematic distortions of science or robust knowledge (as is the case with Creationists and the likes). That doesn’t mean every such views are all good or agreeable. I am typically opposed to them, too, with the exception of Islam criticism which is in context of anti-theism.

    But there is also the trick, and I guess part of why I’m such in arms about this whole discussion: in my view anti-democrats (and I have an even stronger term in my mind) precisely want everybody else to defend often appalling people. Because this is the pretense that Safe Spacers need in the next round. They can then lump everyone together and force people to distance themselves again from the awful people and have you dance to their tune. The lumping together is now called “Alt Right” and also, in good propaganda tradition of this tribe, has at least two meanings, the narrow means neo-nazis (Spencer etc), the wider includes a whole range of people and is a great testament of how the trick works (check the Wikipedia article).

    They also build up the threat-level that way and make society seem more menacing than it is, which is in their genuine interest as people who sell “safety” in their own safe spaces. Even though almost nobody likes Neo-nazis or MRA, say, their support is artificially inflated through such techniques, and the intersectionality Safe Spacer faction can then riff on that, and rally their own identitarian tribe and show how they are needed to “fight the good fight”, or otherwise come hide in the safe space.

    The sad part is that their fascistic attitude is defended uncritically, their blatant and cynical manipulation overlooked and on top, their whole ideology is even made invisible and explained away. But step back and see who is being no-platformed: aside the historical groups (with demonstrably untrue fringe views), it’s those who are (1) critical of the so-called “Social Justice Warriors” (2) rival identitarians, e.g. MRA, TERF etc and (3) political and ideological oppononents.

    A further complication of the core subject comes from the situation that people where first invited, and prima facie passed. Then they are announced and then students prevented an audience to hear what they have to say. The problem at that stage is infringing on the rights of the audience. When speakers for example have mainstream publishers, it’s questionable why their views are considered beyond the pale once in an university setting.

    Likewise, a platform appears to be open for everyone (with a few caveats, nothing illegal, generally within pluralism etc) it turns out not to be the case and again an audience is prevented to see. E.g. ban on islam-critical material, or of pro-Israel or zionist views, yet ISIS propaganda or anti-semitism somehow passes the test. In a smaller version you find that in comment sections, too, where they appear open to everyone, extreme views are visible and allowed, yet tamer worded disagreement gets censored.

    Another complication is lawyering and word games: sometimes the debate is framed as Freedom of Speech in a legal, not a normative, democratic-pluralistic sense. The no-platformers hope to manipulate opinion by pointing out that some platforms are not public but private. But that’s disingenious. The same people would not tolerate it when a private company decided they wouldn’t want to serve, say, Muslims or homosexuals and would also perceive it as dishonest when detractors argue “well, technically, they’re privately owned, therefore …”) because it is not about legalese, but norms and expectations in a plural society.

    The no-platforming also happens within context of the Critical Race Theory ideology and its Tumblr offshoots, e.g. Woke Culture or Intersectionality Feminism, commonly advocated by so-called “social justice warriors”. I know you reject the term, and with that the means to point at an existing phenomenon. You are not alone in this, but it is an indefensible position. Refusing a term, or confusing it, without offering some way how one can point at the actual thing is however an odd strategy, since however you name it, the phenomenon exists, whether or not you play language games about it. This is also why other groups who are offended, or engage in broadly social justice subjects are NOT social justice warriors. A misused term also does not invalidate a term. In a discourse, your aim is to find out what others mean (!) and it’s about that, not about the symbols they use to point at something. I’d love to use self-chosen words, but the trouble is, none exist. We once had “Atheism Plus” and it could be used in principle for a certain faction, but detractors will laugh you out and point out (correctly) that it became the name of a forum, and withered away, and some with “ideology X” embraced the term, some didn’t and it has no currency outside of the atheism-skepticism corner. So the same games can be played here, too, despite that it’s not about the word, but the ideology (or family of postmodern ideologies). In the end it boils down to what critics say all along: these people are not only anti-pluralist, but also anti-discourse. They have no intention: they want to preach, but not be disagreed with — hence no-platforming.

    And finally, addressing the tiresome, pernicious effect of this whole ideology, I again stress that I dislike many of the no-platformed as much as you (or they) do, and I’m tired having to defend people I often find appalling (including many “anti-SJWs”). Hence we need a new, new new Left that is empirical, e.g. the project Gary Edwards is also invested in, and which I support wholeheartly. (Aneris/ YT: Discordian Times)

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  4. I hope to address ideas, not people. When I added a “you” I had context in mind, where Phil discussed or said certain things, but this concerns minor points like the question “what are social justice warriors?”. The term is misused often, and I’m not too fond of it, either. Yet, no proper term that is commonly known, exists. The problem is that people see a number of symptoms and surface properties that gave rise to the term, but not everyone knows how it was arrived at, and what features generate the things that prompted people to call the phenomenon SJWs.

    If used properly, it’s a family (as in family resemblance) of vulgar postmodern views, that are broadly influenced by Critical Race Theory on one end, and mode of anti-discourse on the other end, which includes no-platforming.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. See my most recent post (Dec 26 2016). This blog is now on an extended hiatus. I won’t be replying to comments during that hiatus.

      Happy New Year.

      Philip

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    2. Alright, when you type stuff like “I know you reject the term, and with that the means to point at an existing phenomenon.” that seems very specifically targetted at something Phil has said.

      It comes across a bit as assuming people have the exact same views on everything related to a certain subject when phrased that way. (I would’ve replaced “you” by either Phil, or many people* to avoid confusion)

      Mind if I go by some stuff you said individually instead of replying to your entire post at once btw? I know Phil won’t reply to this in-depth anymore, but as you replied to my post I figured I might as well engage if you’d like.

      (Just doing it bit-by-bit instead of your entire post at once for the sake of brevity & and get some of the non-controversial stuff out of the way first. Also easier to avoid running into misunderstanding.)

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      1. @Phil I don’t know what happened, hope it’s nothing serious. Thanks for your commentary, and I say this as a critic of the intersecionality, postmodernist and critical race theory bunch (and yes, I’ve read their material). Anyway, all the best Phil!

        @neoriceisgood I’m happy to respond to your points. I say upfront, I know things are far more complex. I’m looking at the situation for good three or four years and my views are certainly coloured by countless experiences and assumptions baked into this. Bring it on 🙂

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        1. Okay just want to get a few things clear before I dive into your post;

          I actually personally have objections to the term SJW, but recognise it can be useful as a shorthand for debate if everyone participating understands it to mean the same thing. (my objections mostly relate to that very rarely seeming to be the case)

          so I’m just gonna throw the ball in your court for that one as you did define it; Are you fine just skipping my issues with the term and using it as you defined for the sake of argument?

          I’m fine delving into “SJW” as a term, but I agree with you that it’ll be easier to actually get to the topic of no-platforming if we just accept the definition you gave and go with that. 🙂

          So just let me know if that’s fine & I’ll get to the first point in your post.

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