Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The official student newspaper of Methodist Ladies' College, est. 2020

The Ethics of No-platforming

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Languages, no-platforming is defined as ‘the action or practice of preventing someone holding views regarded as unacceptable or offensive from contributing to a public debate or meeting.’

Ex. “The feminist activist and writer has hit out at the no-platforming of controversial speakers at universities.”

Thus, no-platforming, also called de-platforming, is basically rescinding an invitation to speak or share one’s views and denying them a ‘platform’ to put forth their views. As the definition states, it’s most commonly seen in universities when student unions or clubs unite against a guest speaker or faculty member.

No-platforming is becoming increasingly commonplace in today’s modern society – what was once reserved for censoring violent fascists or politicians has now extended to pretty much every stance imaginable.

Those publicly no-platformed include:

  • Germaine Greer, a feminist and writer

Greer was removed from a guest lecture at Cardiff University in 2015, by – surprisingly – a women’s officer at the university. Rachel Melhuish and her campaign team cited Greer’s allegedly transphobic views after the writer had repeatedly asserted that ‘post-operative transgender women are not women’. Subsequently, 3,000 students signed a petition to cancel Greer’s lecture.

  • Peter Tatchell, an LGBTQIA+ activist

In 2016, Tatchell’s lecture on ‘re-radicalising queers’ at Canterbury Christ Church University was again cancelled by the university’s student union, after LGBTQIA+ representatives of the university made allegations of racism and utilisation of racist language.

  • Boris Johnson, PM of the United Kingdom (London Mayor at time)

In 2016, a big year for the no-platforming debate, Boris Johnson was supposedly no-platformed from an EU referendum debate at Kings’ College. At the time, he was also the London mayor and a student-led institute of policy had called for his appearance to be cancelled after his comments on Barack Obama’s ‘part-Kenyan’ heritage and ‘ancestral dislike of the British Empire’.

No-platforming is already a widespread practice and is gaining more and more media attention. But is it ethical? On one hand, we must note the importance of free speech for an effective democracy. Student unions in their respective universities were only exercising their freedom of speech by sharing their views. Yet in doing so, were they also denying the no-platformed speaker their free speech? This is a tricky question. It can be argued that, at least partially, potential damage of the speaker’s comments should be assessed. To look at whether no-platforming was or is necessary, we have to ask:

How harmful are the speaker’s comments or actions in question?

Will no-platforming the speaker prevent further harm?

If this speaker is not no-platformed, what are the consequences?

Is no-platforming the speaker useful?

And even when a speaker is no-platformed, the person or people uniting against them come into question. Ethically, there are many sides to this argument, but it becomes less and less successful depending on the number of people against the speaker. As members of an organisation like a university, school or faculty, we have a responsibility to respect the collective views of the organisation. If the majority of the organisation believes that the speaker should be no-platformed, their views are unlikely to make a significant impact anyway. But if a notable portion of the organisation does support the speaker’s views, is it right to no-platform the speaker?

No-platforming, de-platforming, or more broadly, cancel culture. Whatever you call it, is it right?

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