Like the Russian revolutionaries after 1917, the progressive left—including atheists—are beginning to eat their own. I find it infinitely depressing to see people at each other’s throats about issues of semantics, censorship and virtue signaling, while the malfeasance of our opponents—conservatives and repressive religionists—goes unchallenged. I’m not exactly sure why this is happening, but I do know that it’s not only divisive and unseemly, but unproductive and solipsistic.
The latest ridiculous performance in this charade is the “no-platforming” of Peter Tatchell, an LGBT and liberal activist who has spent his entire adult life campaigning for gay rights, gay marriage, and for humanitarian causes like opposing the Iraq war and apartheid. (Read his Wikipedia bio to get an idea of the breadth of his activism.)
But now he’s a victim of the Authoritarian Left, suffering the death of a thousand smears for not hewing to Acceptable Behavior. He’s been “no-platformed” (i.e., subject to a student fatwa to be denied venues to speak) by Britain’s ban-happy National Union of Students (NUS) and its intolerant minions.
What did Tatchell do? Only this: objecting to the “no platforming” of people whom the Authoritarian Left doesn’t like. On Valentine’s Day of last year, he and several dozen others signed a letter to the Guardian decrying the no-platforming of people like Kate Smuthwaite, Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer, and others. The letter, called “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals,” was not an endorsement of the views of these people (often dealing with how we should deal with transgender individuals and sex workers), but merely a call to let them speak. Other signers included Mary Beard and Gia Milinovich. Do read the letter; here are its final two paragraphs:
“No platforming” used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists. The feminists who hold these views have never advocated or engaged in violence against any group of people. Yet it is argued that the mere presence of anyone said to hold those views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety.
You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying. We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.
I happen to think that transgender individuals should be treated as full members of the sex they feel they are, and that sex work should, properly regulated, be legal, but I am still on the side of the letter’s signatories: there is a real debate to be had here, and one that should not be suppressed. The fastest social progress comes through open debate, not censorship or repression.
Nevertheless, Tatchell has been attacked as a racist and a transphobe, largely for signing that letter. As yesterday’s Torygraph reports:
The well-known activist was due to take part in a debate on tonight with Fran Cowling, a National Union of Students representative for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, but she pulled out after claiming that he was a bigot.
Miss Cowling, a PhD student at Nottingham University, said she would only take part if Mr Tatchell withdrew from the event, accusing him of having used racist language and signing an open letter supporting the incitement of violence against transgender people.
Cowling claimed she was speaking for the NUS itself, which was apparently untrue, but she clearly reflects the views of that body, which (along with Cowling herself) has refused to be interviewed on the matter. As for those other accusations, Tatchell replied yesterday:
She has every right to do this. But she does not have any right to make false McCarthyite-style smears. When asked to provide evidence of my supposed racism and transphobia, she was not willing to do so. There is none. Privately I tried to get her to withdraw her outrageous, libelous allegations. But she spurned all my attempts to resolve this matter amicably. As a result I have decided to take my case public.
. . . In another email to the LGBT event organiser, Fran made the allegation that she has personally witnessed me using racist language. Untrue. I challenged Fran to produce evidence for this claim. She has failed to produce it – because the accusation is baseless.
. . . Fran also said that I signed a letter to The Observer last year [JAC: same letter to the Guardian] supporting the right of feminists to be “openly transphobic” and to “incite violence” against transgender people. The letter I signed did not say this. Written in support of free speech, it did not express any anti-transgender views or condone anti-transgender violence. For decades, I have opposed feminists such as Germaine Greer who reject and disparage transgender people and their human rights.
Clearly Tatchell is standing up for free expression and debate, not endorsing the views of Germaine Greer. I myself have found no evidence of his “racism” or “transphobia”, and Cowling is clearly lying about that letter, which you can read for yourself (the relevant excerpt is above).
Is this “censorship”? Not in one sense, as Tatchell doesn’t have a right to speak at any private meeting. But in another way it is censorship. If someone is invited to an event and then is disinvited, or someone who’s already agreed to speak at an event withdraws because they don’t like the views of another invited speaker, then that is a kind of censorship, as it constitutes breaking an agreement previously made in an effort to prevent someone’s views from being expressed and heard. “No-platforming” is simply widespread censorship of this form, trying to formalize the banning of speakers in many places. No-platforming as a policy is fascistic, telling everyone that a given speaker is subversive and dangerous. It’s right out of 1984. The NUS has become Big Brother.
This is unconscionable. After all, Tatchell is not Hitler: he’s merely asked for some people—people whose views he opposes!—to be allowed to speak. There are public debates to be had about transgendered people and the legalization of sex work, and why should they not be had? What are people like Cowling afraid of? That their views will lose in an open forum? I don’t think so, for society is increasingly sympathetic, for instance, to the plight of transgendered people. No, the Banning Crowd is trying to stifle its philosophical opponents, and doing it by lying and smearing them. (Cowling’s behavior, by the way, may constitute libel in the UK.)
I asked Grania about “no platforming”, and she sent me an informative reply:
Well, the name certainly appears in an old-ish movement going back to the 80s called No Platform for Racists (it may in fact pre-date this in other forms). It was about not providing a platform for violent fascists and racists of the Neo-Nazi variety at trade union meetings, student meetings and the like. It was the start of the defining of “hate speech”.
Its intentions were noble (although ultimately doomed; see Kenan Malik’s interview, “Why hate speech should not be banned”): to prevent genuine harm or violence to minority or oppressed or vulnerable groups.
In the ensuing 35 years, what constitutes hate speech has, however, become ever more refined to the point of absurdity in some cases.
No-platforming today generally tends to refer to someone being invited and then dis-invited to speak publicly at some event. However, in a broader sense it also involves portraying a person’s character in as negative a light as possible to deter anyone from inviting them to speak (or do business with them, or employ them, or promote them in any way).
It is in effect a 21st-century attempt to excommunicate someone deemed as undesirable. It’s only achievable now (as opposed to 20 years ago) as a result of the Internet turning the world into something of a village again.
The weird thing about the current wave of no-platforming is that the targets tend chiefly to be outspoken advocates of human rights and equality.
Granted, the targets are not exclusively of the Namazie, Tatchell, Dawkins and Hirsi Ali ilk. There are right-wing targets too, like Roosh V (the pickup artist and accused promoter of rape) as well as Dutch politician Geert Wilders.But the bottom line is that there is a tendency now not to confront ideas that are deemed offensive or troubling. It is more effective to simply shut down those you deem as undesirable. And this is usually achieved by a smear campaign which insinuates that the targets advocate damaging ideas and dangerous actions, regardless of whether those people actually have or not.
I agree with Grania’s thoughtful analysis. What is going on here is not the challenging of ideas, or the promulgation of open debate, but the labeling and smearing of opponents in an attempt to destroy their public reputations. It is ad hominem argumentation. When Cowling says that the letter Tatchell signed is “openly transphobic” and “incites violence against transgenedered people,” she is lying, pure and simple. And it’s easy to find her lies: just read the letter. She’s hoping, I guess, that people either won’t read it or, carried away by their emotions, will say that Tatchell is a transphobe and bigot anyway.
I wonder what these authoritarian Lefists think they are accomplishing. They are not winning the debate in the public eye, for people are not stupid, and—or so I think—view “no-platforming” as unfair and underhanded: a tactic used by privileged crybullies.
And do the no-platform crowd really think that people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maryam Namazie, Peter Tatchell, Germaine Greer and Kate Smurthwaite are dangers to society—so dangerous that their views simply shouldn’t be aired? What kind of trust of public opinion and democracy does that denote? The authoritarians are arrogating to themselves the right to determine which views can be heard and which should be repressed. This is precisely what Christopher Hitchens saw as the danger to free speech: who do you trust to decide what is offensive?
It is a world turned upside down when organizations like the Goldsmiths College Feminists try to prevent Maryam Namazie from speaking, siding with the Goldsmith Islamic Society against a woman who fights the religious oppression of women. In the end, the Authoritarian Left is working against its own interests.