No platform for free speech?

Owen Jones

Owen Jones, socialist wunderkind and dauphin of the Left, said this week that he would not accept an invitation to speak at the Cambridge Union because they had also invited Marine Le Pen. To be clear, he was not going to be speaking at the same debate as her; he simply wished to boycott the Union altogether because he didn’t believe they should be giving a platform to a fascist. Let us leave aside the fact that Le Pen has, like Jones, been invited onto Newsnight in the past and that the odious hangdog Nick Griffin has, infamously, appeared on BBC Question Time – again, in common with Jones. I am not interested in Owen’s hypocrisy – flagrant though it may be – that is something he must reconcile for himself. Rather, I want to address this notion that one ought not to give a platform to those with repulsive views.

As it happens, I attended a debate at the Cambridge Union back in April 2003, and the keynote speaker was none other than Le Pen – not Marine, however, but her father, Jean-Marie. Before I could even get into the building, I was barracked by a mob of angry anti-fascist protestors. I wouldn’t wish to fault their passion – I am as antipathetic towards the tenets of fascism as I am to its close cousin communism. However, they were justifying their protest on the basis of the same logic that Owen Jones has employed this week: namely that fascists should not be given a platform from which to espouse their views. Now, the debate itself turned out to be a pretty dull affair at first.

Le Pen spoke at length in French, through a translator, talking about his love of France and what a solid patriot he was. Where it became interesting was when he started taking questions from the audience. One person asked if he was an anti-Semite, and after his answer had been translated, a Francophone student shouted out “that’s not what he said!” It transpired (after a few more questions in a similar vein) that Le Pen’s translator was sugar-coating his master’s bitter, twisted voice so as to make him appear more respectable. In common with nearly everyone else who attended, I left feeling even more disgusted with the man as I had when I arrived. Not only was he a vile specimen, but he had tried to hoodwink an intelligent audience - and it had backfired spectacularly.

What is this argument that says we oughtn’t to give the Le Pens and the Griffins of this world a platform? Is it born out of a fear that people will be persuaded by what they hear? Denis Thatcher once remarked that it is better to remain silent and have everyone think you a fool than to open your mouth and prove it beyond doubt. By giving people like Le Pen a platform we rob them of the martyred status they crave and instead expose them for the peddlers of nonsense they really are. Denying them a platform for fear of the consequences is like telling a teenager not to smoke without any justification: it simply breeds curiosity. Let the racists choke on their own smoke.

Is the idea that giving a platform to a fascist somehow causes us to judge them equally with the others who share that platform with them? This argument would have some small degree of merit if we humans approached any kind of debate or discussion with the level-headed neutrality of the BBC’s charter (cough) but the reality is that we’re terribly biased creatures. When we see a politician or journalist espousing views we don’t like, we boo and hiss. When someone speaks up for our opinions, we cheer – and in that moment automatically ascribe the speaker a higher status. When Nick Griffin comes onto Question Time, nobody but dyed in the wool BNP members (all two and a half of them) would think anything other than “there’s that idiot Nick Griffin”. I very much doubt that visitors to the Cambridge Union, on seeing Marine Le Pen one week, will later think “gosh, her views share equal value with Owen Jones, I should give them both a fair hearing in my brain”. We’re just not wired that way.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if we start adopting the position that some people shouldn’t have a platform, we run into a very thorny patch of free speech briar. ‘No platform’ types are quick to point out that they are in favour of free speech: fascists can spout off to their heart’s content in public fora, but they shouldn’t have access to privileged platforms. Or, as Owen Jones rather charmingly puts it, people can tweet what they like but they can’t always expect him to retweet it. Yet, what are the barriers to entry for access to a privileged platform? What are the rules that we use to judge who does and who doesn’t get such access? Whence do those rules derive their value? If we start to sketch out a platform and the people who should be excluded from it, we are making decisions about the kinds of opinions we think are appropriate for public consumption. That decision is, in and of itself, premised upon the idea that we know what is and is not appropriate. It may seem like a subtle distinction, but within it the seeds of censorship lie. If you deny a platform to someone because they hold abhorrent views, it is not a million miles away from denying them the same platform simply because you don’t like them or their views. We already know that the platform of “debating with George Galloway” has taken on a nationalist qualification: non- Israelis only. Now, that may not be an especially important platform – certainly not one I have any interest in sharing – but it is indicative of the kinds of absurdities that can arise when you start making decisions about what is appropriate for a given platform.

Owen Jones believes that his saintly feet should never touch the same ground as a fascist or a racist. In so saying, he is implicitly stating that his own views are better than those of a fascist or a racist. For what it’s worth, I think they are better. But that is also my own opinion: and I’d be an imbecile if I thought that was any kind of objective standard by which to judge a platform for others. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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