Comment: Safe spaces don't limit free speech – they give it to the marginalised

No-platforming sends an important message to marginalised voices
No-platforming sends an important message to marginalised voices

By Abi Wilkinson

Denying fascists public speaking opportunities has been a strategy of the anti-fascist movement since the early 1930s. When the term 'no-platforming' was first used on university campuses in the early 1970s, it was almost exclusively in this context. But over the past few years, students' union officers have begun using the tactic against a wider range of speakers as part of attempts to create a 'safe space' on campus.

It's argued that offering a platform to certain people – often feminists believed to be 'trans-exclusionary' or 'sex work exclusionary' – would be neglecting their duty to protect the welfare of marginalised students. Critics contend that union officers are abusing their power to unacceptably stifle freedom of speech.

Back in the 1970s, it made some sense to understand no-platforming on campus as a freedom of speech issue. True, it wasn't legal censorship, but denying someone access to an audience could have almost the same effect if other means of communication weren't available. But despite this, only the most militant free speech fundamentalists objected to denying fascists use of university buildings to preach hate. Avoiding the concrete harm of enabling a Nazi recruitment drive was considered more important than protecting the abstract principle of freedom of expression.

 

Paradoxically, the fact that no-platforming has become such a hotly debated issue shows how much has changed in recent years. As it turns out, in 2015 it's extremely tricky to ban, or even attempt to ban, a speaker from a university without provoking a great deal of discussion. This applies even to radical clerics like Anjem Choudhry and neo-fascist politicians like Marine Le Pen. It's doubly true of feminists like Germaine Greer who enjoy much greater public and establishment support. A lot of this has to do with the new communication opportunities provided by the internet.

In a perfect demonstration of the Streisand effect, online debates about speakers being no-platformed regularly reach a much wider audience than their banned speeches or panel appearances would have. People across the country, if not the globe, post tweets, Facebook post and blogs about the situation. Students who might have attended the cancelled event can easily look up the speaker’s opinions online. In all likelihood, curiosity about the reason for all the fuss will prompt many more people to do the same.

No-platforming rows have also tended to generate some level of mainstream media coverage, which both contributes to and feeds off of the social media buzz. Far from being censored, the words and opinions that led students’ to call for the speaker to be no-platformed are reproduced again and again. Recent attempts to ban Germaine Greer from Cardiff University were unsuccessful - her talk went ahead anyway last week - but not before she was invited onto Newsnight to repeat the mean-spirited comments about trans people that were the cause of the dispute.

It seems likely that the students petitioning for her to be no-platformed anticipated all this. The whole process has been repeated so many times that extensive media coverage and heated online discussion are entirely predictable consequences. If the real goal of trying to ban Germaine Greer from speaking on campus was preventing her ideas being heard, the tactic would have been abandoned as totally counterproductive. The only logical conclusion is that no-platforming has become a symbolic act rather than a serious attempt to suppress certain viewpoints.

If limiting freedom of speech is neither the aim nor the consequence of student-led no-platforming, interpreting it that way misses the point. It assumes a certain power dynamic – students as powerful aggressors and speakers as victims of censorship who need defending against them – which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Germaine Greer has infinitely more power and influence than the students who sought to stop her speaking at Cardiff University. Even without the internet, her access to mainstream media platforms means that students could never prevent her ideas being heard.

 


 



If we ignore the power inequality between Greer and student trans rights activists - or even assume the students are the more powerful actors - allowing Greer to speak on campus is a neutral act and no-platforming her is an aggressive use of force. However, if we recognise trans people as a marginalised group and Greer as a powerful woman who uses her position to spread hate against them, neither option is neutral. It's a choice between standing up against a bully or handing them a megaphone. The inherently uneven playing field means that a third option of conversing on equal terms doesn't exist.

It doesn't actually matter whether you agree Greer is a transphobic bully. The point is that the aim of no-platforming in this context is not censorship. It's better understood as an attempt to signal that trans students are welcome and valued on campus.

Whilst universities do have a duty to enable free debate, the primary role of students’ unions is to represent the interests of their members. Framing no-platforming as a free speech issue allows critics to brush aside welfare concerns without addressing them. Even if inviting a speaker onto campus does distress and alienate marginalised students, it's considered less damaging than censorship.

Instead, let's look at it another way. Let's acknowledge that genuine censorship isn't at stake. Regardless of whether she's invited to give a speech on campus, Greer’s ideas can still be discussed in seminars, lectures, debates and casual conversations. Her books are still available in the library and her words are widely quoted online. Students and academics are still free to draw upon her work. Anyone who wants to can look up several of her previous speaking engagements on YouTube.

What reason is there to concentrate on an imagined threat to free speech rather than considering the actual impact of Greer’s statements?

No-platforming critics accuse activists of exaggerating the harm caused by words. But they themselves massively exaggerate the harm of cancelling speaking engagements.

If anyone is genuinely at risk of silenced, it's not Greer. If we're truly committed to encouraging free debate, we should be fighting for the most marginalised voices to be heard. Symbolic no-platforming is a tactic which enables that. Maybe it’s even something for freedom of speech advocates to celebrate.

Abi Wilkinson is a freelance journalist based in London who writes about politics, inequality, gender and internet culture, among other topics. Follow her on Twitter.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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