Freedom to Boycott (Part I)

Yesterday evening I left a comment1 on a post by Chris Jarvis on the Bright Green blog.  Discussing Peter Tatchell and No Platform, Chris wrote:

Tatchell tacitly endorses the idea that people should not be able to collectively decide the people that they chose to invite to speak at events that they are organising in their own spaces.

No, I replied.  In signing the letter, Tatchell is saying that when people chose not to debate people with whom they are disagree, they are making a mistake and harming their own cause.
This distinction is the great peril of the No Platform debate.  Both sides seem to misunderstand what the other side is saying.
Free speech defenders, for their part, seem not to be able to make the distinction between choosing not to associate with someone, and denying that person a platform.
Meanwhile, students activists appear to assume that any defence of the free speech principle amounts to an endorsement of a speaker’s prejudice views… or else an endorsement (as Chris puts it) of the idea that people should not be able to choose who to associate with.
Events that take place at universities are an important part of the public discourse.  They are not purely private decisions that are no business of anyone else.  Decisions about who chooses to debate whom (or not!) are matters of public interest.  When a student body votes to No Platform a speaker like Julie Bindel, or when an NUS officer like Fran Cowling chooses to snub Peter Tatchell, other people have the right to comment.  In particular, we have a right to ask whether the underlying cause (equal rights and dignity for marginalised groups) are best served by those choices.
Every now and then, a socially conservative or reactionary public says something crass, and subsequently becomes the subject of a politically correct outrage.  If they follow the usual script, they will at some point claim that they have been ‘censored’ when in fact people are simply commenting on what a terrible person they are.   They fail to realise that condeming what a person has said is not the same as denying their right to say it.
Similarly, condemning a choice to boycott is not the same as denying the right to boycott.  It’s just more free speech at work.

1. The comment was not approved by moderators for some reason.  Whatevs.

One Reply to “Freedom to Boycott (Part I)”

  1. Top post, as ever Rob. It is so easy in any argument to simplify, thus missing the nuances of the argument which hardens the difference between to two sides.

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