The debate about students and free speech has flared up again. NUS LGBTQ officer Fran Cowling refused to share a platform with veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, acusing him of racism and transphobia.
Many people have pointed out that refusing to speak alongside someone is not the same as denying them a platform; others argue that it can amount to the same thing.
The standard argument against No Platform is that we should debate people we disagree with, because we will win the argument. This is a point I have made in many contexts. But there is a collary to this which is often glossed over: No Platform just makes the bigots someone else’s problem.
No Platform is just a clever form of NIMBYism. When students refuse to engage, the people with unsavoury views are not discredited to the extent that they fall out of the discourse. Instead, they double-down. Although they may be prevented from speaking in a particular place, they usually take their speech elsewhere.
As Donne should have said, “no man or woman is an island”. We are social beings and we all live in a politicised space. When I was discussing the Tatchell issue on Twitter yesterday, one person said to me “[Your] problem is you think I should be debating anyone, I have no duty to do that and am free to prioritise whatever I like.”
At the time I conceded the point, but now I think perhaps I was too hasty! If not you, then who? If not me, then who? If not us, then who? We mock people who do not vote but then moan about politicians. Perhaps we should demand more of anyone who is troubled by the way public figures behave and by the way society is organised? Perhaps we do have a duty to take a stand and fight? And perhaps students, at the cutting edge of culture and knowledge, have a clearer and more present duty than the rest of us?
No Platform is the political equivalent of fly-tipping. Rather than dealing once and for all with the unpleasant rubbish, the policy causes the mess to be dumped elsewhere.
A pertinent response from Rowan on Twitter: