It’s hard to go more than a few weeks now without someone, somewhere, suggesting that somebody shouldn’t be given a platform. The result is always the same: article after article after article talking about how awful the No Platform policy is and how censorious liberals have become and how freedom of speech itself is under threat.
But what does ‘No Platform’ really mean? What even is a platform? The familiar mantra for those of us involved in these debates is that ‘free speech isn’t the same as privileged speech’ – but what does that mean? It’s a debate which is full of loaded, ambiguous terms. Even the term ‘free speech’ has a vast number of connotations, with far too many arguments revolving around different conceptions of free speech, opposing points passing each other like ships in the night.
An argument usually invoked in favour of No Platform policies and protests is that there’s a difference between ‘free speech’ and ‘privileged speech’, but what do we mean by that?
I’ve been thinking about the free speech problem for quite a while, and the way I’ve begun to explain it in the soft, squishy, private domain of my mind is in terms of what I call ‘Platform Theory’. I’m all but certain that somewhere in the canon of political philosophy there is an incredibly intelligent person (probably an Ancient Greek) who has articulated what I’m about to say before me, more lucidly, and under a better heading, but I can’t find it for the life of me, so this is my take on how speech is cashed out in a liberal democracy. It plays upon social contract themes of rights and responsibilities, and I think it’s a reasonable framework to analyse the costs and benefits of platforming particular speakers, with particular views, in particular places. Here goes.
What is a platform? (And so can you!)
A platform is a capacity someone has, either as a person or as an institution, to amplify and/or legitimise the speech and/or views of another person or institution. It sounds messy, but it can be explained fairly simply through some examples.
Recently the New York Times published an op-ed by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant on ‘Speaking While Female’. The New York Times has a daily circulation of 1.8 million. by publishing this piece, they gave an unopposed platform to Sandberg and Grant, through which they reached at least 1.8 million people. In this case, their voices are both amplified – because they could not reach that many people simply by writing the post and then sticking it up on the wall in their bedroom – and legitimised – because the piece was provided without any kind of rebuttal or ‘balance’. This isn’t intended as a criticism – that is what an op-ed does.
So far, so simple. None of this is particularly controversial – we all know that newspapers have a particular editorial slant, and that they give their columnists both audience and legitimacy. That’s part of the point of the press.
If I have 1000 followers on Twitter and I retweet someone’s opinion about, say, the merits of the man-bun*, along with some kind of agreement, or without any kind of rebuttal, then similarly I amplify and legitimise their view. On average someone with 1000 followers will probably have each tweet seen by about 100-200 people. They’re less capable of amplifying than the New York Times, but they’re still providing a platform to somebody else’s view. If I tweet some kind of affirmation of the view along with the retweet, I legitimise more than I do simply by retweeting it – assuming my followers broadly believe me to be a reliable source of information or decent opinions, they’re more likely to believe something I retweet to be true if I add my explicit endorsement to it. I give that view a platform, and I lend it legitimacy. I am a platform. You can be a platform, too. Below is an example of giving a platform to a (horrible) view without endorsing it.
— Ben Garrison (@MayMayPoster) January 12, 2015
None of this is very contentious. What about situations in which a view won’t necessarily go unchallenged when someone amplifies it? For example, the BBC commits itself to ‘balance’ when portraying controversial issues, attempting to bring in commentators on both ‘sides’ of an issue wherever possible. They give those commentators a platform, amplifying their views, but they don’t necessarily legitimise those views – or at least, they don’t legitimise one of the views over the other. Of course, they do legitimise both those sets of views – Today on Radio 4 has over 7 million listeners per week, and for many of them the two (or maybe three or four) views presented on an issue will be the only, or at least the bulk, of the material that they hear on any particular issue. That means that the BBC platforms two contrasting views and presents them as a dichotomy. Whilst this can produce a decent discourse, and obviously the intelligent viewer is able to make their mind up for themselves, choosing to platform those particular people necessarily limits the scope of the discussion. The BBC may not endorse a particular view, but they do legitimise the views of the people they have on by virtue of exposing them to an audience of millions. It is possible to legitimise a person without endorsing their views.
The Case of Marine le Pen at the Cambridge Union
This last argument doesn’t seem particularly controversial, but it’s at the heart of the No Platform movement. When the Cambridge Union Society hosted Marine le Pen in 2013, there was a protest from Unite Against Fascism and assorted student campaigners. Owen Jones publicly rejected his invitation to speak at the Union in protest at the decision to invite her – to give her the Union as a platform. The argument against the No Platformers was that the Union doesn’t endorse the views of any of its speakers – indeed, the Union’s members are given the assurance that they will be able to question and engage with them, particularly if they are controversial.
This is an interesting case in platform theory. The Union amplified le Pen, but not in any significant way: she had already achieved 18% of the vote in the French national elections, and so even if the Union had an audience of thousands rather than the ~500 that it can fit into its chamber, the amplification would be negligible. So any damage which could conceivably be dealt through platforming her would have to be done through legitimisation. The Union claim not to endorse the views of their speakers – and I can confirm that, having run the Union for a time, this is definitely the case. But as I argued above, they don’t have to endorse their views in order to legitimise them. In this case, they’re not legitimised by virtue of the number of people they reach, or because platforming them necessarily excludes other viewpoints.
Their views are legitimised for two reasons. First, the Cambridge Union and other institutions like it – the Oxford Union, the BBC, the pages of national newspapers like the Daily Telegraph and The Times and The Guardian – have prestige attached to them. It is a privilege to be invited to speak at, or write for, these places. The website of Le Front National has an article about her ‘success’ speaking at Cambridge. No matter how robustly she was challenged, the take-away for members of the public who weren’t present was that Marine le Pen was invited to speak the University of Cambridge in front of some of the brightest young minds in the world.
The second reason that inviting a controversial person to speak at the Union legitimises them as a figure, without endorsing their views, is that there is a massive power differential between the invited speaker and the audience. This was the case with le Pen, it was the case with Dominique Strauss Khan, and it will be the case this term with Moazzam Begg and Germaine Greer. When I was President, we had the Israeli Ambassador, Daniel Taub, come to speak, and despite my best efforts, this power relationship remained. The mechanics of speaker events like this make it impossible for there to be completely robust challenges from the audience. The speaker is a guest in the space – you have to be nice to people if you’re hoping to get them to come and speak to your society for free – and so it’s very difficult to moderate effectively. They’ll often speak for much longer than you’d like, students won’t necessarily ask the hardest questions – often because the audience is likely to be composed of people who are broadly sympathetic enough to the speaker to want to spend their evening listening to them – and it’s generally just very hard to end up with a speaker being ‘challenged’ in the way that you’d ideally hope for. The end result is that their views go unchallenged to a degree, and that means that they’re at least partly legitimised by their visit. Note that this means that not only does platforming them legitimise them as a person worthy of the honour, but also it legitimises their views, especially if they are giving a talk on a particular subject.
We are all platforms
This has been a brief introduction to one aspect of what I call platform theory, and what I’m sure somebody cleverer than me has called something wittier and more apt. I’ve covered what it means to give somebody a platform: from amplification, to legitimisation, to outright endorsement. Obviously I haven’t covered all possible instances of platforming, but this should be enough of an introduction for people to send me hate-mail on Twitter. In future posts, I hope to work on the rights and responsibilities we have in choosing to platform particular people and particular views, as well as situating platform theory within the context of broader debates about freedom of speech and expression, and the tradeoffs we may have to make between those rights and other values which we hold dear as a society.
*The man-bun has no merits.