No-platforming: A Threat to Free Speech?

Jul 20


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Helen Whitten

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No-platforming: A Threat to Free Speech?

In May we went to the Hay Literary Festival and listened to an excellent but disquieting talk by the journalist  David Aaronovitch on the subject of no-platforming.  This is where student unions cancel talks by people who hold opinions with which they don’t agree.   In recent months this has included both Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell.  Neither of them are dangerous people.  Neither of them are inciting murder or hatred.  They are simply expressing opinions and yet they have been denied a platform on the university lecture circuit.

Surely this is a direct contradiction of what education is all about.  Is university not a time when a student’s mind can be stretched and honed, teaching them how to counter ideas and be curious about information and opinions that differ from their own?  In short, to make them think and to challenge their own perspectives as well as those of other people?  Instead, it seems, there is a trend towards them just wanting to hear talks that confirm their own opinions.

I read of students who are demanding that they should be warned if there is a challenging scene, such as rape, in a book they are studying, in case it upsets them.  Don’t we actually need to explain to young people that life is upsetting, difficult and can be unfair and that there is no law of the universe to prevent this?  And if they don’t accept these challenges they will be both disappointed but also blindsided by problems when they arise and limited in their ability to deal with them.

I am becoming increasingly concerned that, in the aim of not offending people, we are moving away from honest debate.   To solve the world’s problems we need to identify them realistically.  To achieve this we need many minds and many perspectives in order to break through any personal perceptual blinkers we may have.   We can’t do this if people are only willing to listen to the opinions that support their own.  Both businesses and governments also require independent-minded individuals who are capable of listening, analysing and being open to innovation.

I would wager that those who are making these no-platform decisions would ardently quote Article 19 of the Human Rights Act at other times.  Perhaps I could remind them of this Article: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.  It seems they can conveniently forget this message when it comes to the freedoms of those whose opinions they dislike.

We all have to beware the cosy appeal of confirmation bias – of choosing to be among those people who support our views and reading only those newspapers that confirm our own prejudices.  It is much easier to feel good about ourselves if we read opinions that reflect our own and yet actually we need to challenge ourselves by reading other opinions and consulting newspapers that we perceive may have articles that oppose those we hold dear to us.  Reading only one newspaper, whether it is the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph, will inevitably shape our neurons and opinions and limit our thinking.

As a coach trained in Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy ( and Cognitive-Behavioural psychology ( ) my raison d’etre is to enable clients to compassionately challenge their perspectives, to seek clear evidence in facts, to question distorted viewpoints and dispute whether the beliefs they hold are relevant to them today or are simply a groove from childhood or a previous time in life.   It is designed to help them analyse their responses and develop more rational and helpful approaches where appropriate.

On a personal level, having not gone to university when I left school in 1967, I did choose to read history at King’s College London aged 40 because I somehow knew that I lacked the skills to research, collect supporting facts for an argument or present a case with evidence.  The degree did give me the techniques I needed to present my own viewpoint even if eminent historians had written opposite accounts.  This is what university is about – giving a student the confidence and skills to forge new ideas and perspectives.

I was further depressed the other evening when I heard a debate on the Moral Maze on Radio Four.  There were speakers who argued both that people should not only not be subjected to opinions that might offend them but also should be informed of a “Statement of Privilege”.  In my understanding (and correct me if I am wrong) this is where the speaker has to record any aspect of their life that could be considered a privilege – eg having a white skin, being middle class, having a university degree.  Somehow it is not considered acceptable simply to make a Statement of Birth, eg “I was born white but had no control over the fact” nor a Statement of Hard Work “I was born in a council estate, worked hard to get to University and now have a good job”.

Instead, it is as if people have to wear their list their suffering and non-privilege as badges of honour worthy of special attention.  Aaronovitch spoke of this approach potentially encouraging people to seek to be offended and victimised.  In my view this feeds inequality rather than heals it.  Making people special because of their misfortune does not help them manage life.   There is no way that I can see any usefulness in a conversation that goes “my suffering is worse than yours” as it is not, in any case, readily quantifiable.  Just because someone holds a university degree, is white, professional or even upper class does not signify that they have not been exposed to major difficulties such as losing a parent, being cruelly treated or experiencing sickness. None of these experiences will necessarily be worn on their sleeves.  Comparison of privilege is therefore, in my view, subjective and also a potentially corrosive practice.

As a coach I meet people from all walks of life, some of whom have come from apparently privileged backgrounds, the homeless,  and those who have worked their way into a good job from homes where their parents did not go to university.    They couldn’t always control what happened to them but they could control how they responded to it.  This is where individuals have choice.  There are those who have had difficult backgrounds who make a success of their life – in whatever way success is meaningful to them.  There are others who hold on to their resentment at a perceived or real incident for the rest of their lives.  In my area of work we endeavour to move people out of any focus on where they may feel or perceive they are victimised and to empower them to take control of their lives in whatever way they can.

I think there can be a confusion between the difference between a right and a gift.  The Articles in the Human Rights Act have been written by governments.  They are a human construct and they become law but I think it is a slippery slope to then conclude that we have other rights, such as not to be offended or upset,  or to be given a “safe space” where one’s opinions will not be challenged.   Taking it down to a personal level,  if I was in dire straits I might turn up at a friend’s house and ask for shelter but I would not regard it as a right that she should give it to me.  It is a gift.

Diverse perspectives can be shared without causing offence.  It is how you share the words that makes the difference – the intention, the voice tone, the body language will all demonstrate whether you are intending to cause offence or are merely, as is your right, expressing your opinion. In Cognitive-Behavioural coaching we apply Socratic dialogue to question whether a client’s perspective is both rational and helpful to them managing a situation.  For example, one could question “Who says you have a right to a safe space?” or “What law of the universe states that there is a right not to be offended?”  or “How does it help you to believe that you have a right not to be upset?”  The reality is that there is no law of the universe that gives these students a right to protection from difficult information, and while they believe they have this right they will continue to be upset and unprepared for life itself.

A French friend of mine, writing to me in the aftermath of the tragic murders in Nice last week, said that he felt that the French educational system is not teaching critical thinking sufficiently to help young people question attempts to radicalise them.  This is reflected in the UK system too and we must surely resist those who seek to silence reasonable expression of opinion.  We must encourage rational thinking, dispute and debate.

I am not sure why those in charge of the no-platforming decisions in universities think they have the right to limit free speech in this way.  Perhaps we could all remind them of Article 19 of the Human Rights Act should we hear an attempt to keep reasonable speakers off the university platforms.


One Response

  1. Brilliant article, thank you. 😀
    I’d also like to say that offense is only taken. Thus people saying they have the right to not be offended means that their rule should only apply to themselves not being allowed to take offense.
    On a few games I play some people get quite angry when they’re playing badly, so when they start insulting others or myself I just laugh. That way I don’t have a bad experience playing whichever game it may be. The alternative is taking offense at whatever these comments may be, that way I would have a bad experience playing the game.
    You mention that people should not try to limit the literature and media they consume by only reading views that they agree with. Ironically, I completely agree with this point and would like to take this further. I suggest that people should also try to view political events without seeing it only through their own ideological lens, a great YouTuber by the name of Sargon of Akkad has a brilliant video on this:
    I highly recommend it.
    Thank you again for this post.
    – Nathan

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