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22nd February 2016

No platforming is obscuring the free speech debate

After the controversies surrounding Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer, is censorship at universities missing the point with the issues at hand?

Last week, the NUS’s LGBT officer, Fran Cowling, refused to attend a debate on the future of gay rights activism at Canterbury Christ Church University. She claimed that she would not share a platform with another invited speaker, Peter Tatchell, due to the “racism” and “transphobia” of his decision to sign a letter in The Observer, calling for an end to censorship of individuals at universities. Peter Tatchell, one of the most celebrated LGBT rights activists in the history of the movement—who has been beaten and arrested for his activism, and quite literally risking his life for his belief in equality—was considered a bigot unworthy of sharing a stage with. Cries of “this generation’s gone mad” don’t seem unwarranted.

Of course, Cowling received a strong backlash against her decision, with historian Tom Holland calling the move “a quite transcendent display of ingratitude”, and journalist David Aaronovitch asserted that Cowling should feel “honoured” for the opportunity to speak with Tatchell, “who she clearly knows nothing about”. It certainly does seem like an odd judgement to make of someone who is often looked on as something of a national treasure for his role in progressing gay rights, by someone who supposedly represents the LGBT community amongst students—especially with little evidence for Tatchell’s alleged transphobia and racism; other than his signature on a letter that advocates neither of these two things directly. But Cowling’s choice, while perhaps misjudged, is not necessarily as surprising as it may have been a few years ago; before the NUS implemented their ‘no platform’ policy, by which no individual with certain disagreeable viewpoints should be given a platform to speak. While it was not the NUS’s decision to ‘no-platform’ Tatchell, the choice of Cowling to do so undoubtedly stems from a current culture—amongst students in particular—of censoring those with whom one disagrees. This is a trend perpetuated by the NUS and it’s ‘no platform’ policy.

It is fairly ironic that the letter Cowling opposes so vehemently is the one that argues against censorship and for “democratic political exchange” amongst those who disagree with one another. The letter in question was written last year as a response to the ‘no-platforming’ of various speakers, and signed by over 100 public figures and academics. One of the individuals mentioned in the letter was Germaine Greer, who was brought to public attention again in late 2015 when a petition circulated around Cardiff University seeking to prevent her from lecturing there due to ‘transphobic’ comments she had made. In this case, it is clear that remarks Greer had made could be considered offensive to transgender people. To put it simply, she does not think it is possible for a man to transition into a woman. This position, although controversial, does not incite violence or hatred towards transgender people. Greer does not believe that men should not be allowed or able to transition, and she refers to people by whichever pronoun they prefer. Her reasoning is, as The Independent’s Abigail Tarttelin puts it: “trans women’s and cis women’s issues intersect, but they are not identical”. Whether or not the signatories of the petition at Cardiff agree with this view or not, it is irrational to disregard Greer as a credible speaker because of it. Greer was and is one of the most important feminist thinkers in the world, as well as being an esteemed academic. This cannot be discredited due to one of her unpopular opinions. In any case, the lecture Greer was due to give—and, in the end, did end up giving—was entitled ‘Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century’. She was not going to speak about her views on transgender people. How confused has the debate surrounding free speech become that 3,000 people petitioned to censor a highly respected feminist and academic on the subject of her expertise?

While the ‘no-platforming’ of Tatchell and Greer is made decidedly more outrageous due to their reputation as pioneers of equality, the problem with censoring any individual—that is, one who isn’t actively inciting hatred or violence—really boils down to the silencing of free speech. That Greer is a hugely significant figure in the campaign for women’s rights, and that Tatchell is a person far removed from the transphobic racist Cowling believes him to be is, to a certain extent, irrelevant. Ultimately, their opponents have every right to disagree with their views. The point is that if someone’s opinions on certain issues are questionable, the fine, question them. It should be too obvious to point out that not everyone is going to agree with each other all the time. And yet, the ‘no-platform’ policy discourages debate by suppressing contentious or provocative viewpoints, rather than allowing them to be argued with.

Wanting to provide a ‘safe space’ for students where they are free from feeling threatened by anyone sounds like a wonderful idea. But if a speaker does not advocate violence or hatred, is it really a threat to simply be offended by their opinions? It is condescending to assume that all students need to be mollycoddled out of hearing any opinion that might offend them, or that they are impressionable enough to agree with the latest opinion they’ve come across. Instead, the NUS, other Students’ Unions around the country and anyone else wanting to refuse a platform to somewhat controversial speakers, should consider that lively debate and conversation is far more beneficial to the expansion of students’ minds—surely a crucial reason most are attending university in the first place—than censorship.

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