You do not have the right to ‘offend’

On the 5th March, I spoke in a debate at the Oxford Union, against the motion “This House Believes that Free Speech Always Includes the Right to Offend. We lost. Catastrophically. A full, much funnier, write up of the event is on its way, but in the meantime, here’s the rough text of the speech I gave.

I have two jokes for you. The first comes from a piece by Frankie Boyle, entitled ‘Offence and Free Speech’. It goes like this:

The thing about that paedophile ring at Westminster is that they weren’t even the worst MPs. There were people in Parliament who were to the right of MPs that STRANGLED KIDS. And they actually did more harm than paedophiles. I mean, the nonces tried to do harm in their own little way, but Thatcher fucked ALL the kids.

The second comes from a lovely website called Sickipedia, and it goes like this:

What do you say to a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you already told her twice.

Both of these jokes are offensive in the sense that they can shock, appall and cause personal upset. On the level of rights and freedoms, only one of these jokes matters.

What I’m hoping to convince you of over the next few minutes is that framing this debate in terms of ‘offence’ is an error. It is an error because it obscures the difference between the personal upset which might be caused to a person in a position of privilege by a joke, or a comment, or an insult, and the contribution to oppression and prejudice and structural inequalities which is made by comments aimed at people from groups which are marginalised in society.

First, I want to address some of the points made by Brendan O’Neill in his speech. I want to talk about the idea that any restriction on speech in the name of preventing harm, where that speech is not actively inciting violence, is somehow paternalistic or infantilising. Brendan in particular has a shtick about this. ‘Students of Britain,’ he says, ‘rise up against your censorious leaders! You’re being patronised beyond belief. You’re being infantilised. So buy the Sun, play Robin Thicke on college radio, invite the EDL to speak, talk about abortion, make sexist jokes, indulge in banter, hold debates on transgenderism, and do anything else you can to kick against the pricks who think you are babies who must be kept away from sexy or shocking or silly words.’

Two responses to this: One, no, I’m not the only one saying these things, it’s just that I’m the one who gets invited to speak about them at the Oxford Union and I wonder why that is. It’s almost as if entrenched structural privilege is a thing. Most of the people saying these things are from marginalised groups, and the free speech absolutists are, by and large, privileged white men.

Two, why is having a thick skin such an important trait to you? what is so important about being able to take insult after insult that you fetishise emotional fortitude so? why can’t you embrace the reality that some people in society are weak, they are vulnerable, they are hurt in ways that go beyond the temporary emotional by things that you say?

Let’s talk about how we have come to be in a situation where ‘offence’ is the operative word in situations where speech is discussed. How have we got to the point where any and all protests against the harmful effects of a particular speech act can be dismissed with the wave of a hand and an apocryphal Voltaire quote? How has it come to pass that we have ceded the authority to obviate any need for arbitration of speech and expression, either by ourselves or by others, to smug Stephen Fry GIFs?

A tentative answer – and those of you playing student leftie bingo, please keep any noise to a minimum – comes from neo-liberal individualism. When we’ve been told for so long that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families, we come to believe that not only is there no need for social cohesion greater than that required to facilitate the functioning of business, but also that there is no such thing as identity politics – or that, if there is, it is something pernicious, something which undermines ‘rational discourse’, something JS Mill certainly wouldn’t approve of. We’ve been led to believe that the only kind of harm that matters is individual harm, that the only offence which has any importance is individual offence, that there is no need for a politics which encompasses the very real prejudices, conscious and unconscious, historic and present, which give rise to structural oppressions in our society.

This, I put to you, is a fundamental mistake. [Only if Brendan et al say this: last time I spoke to Brendan, he quoted Martin Luther King, telling me that he wanted to live in a world in which people were judged by their character, and not by the colour of their skin]. I, too, would like to live in that world. But it is not the world we live in. You have to be intentionally looking in the wrong direction not to see the very real, everyday acts, both small and large, minor and viscerally violent, which are perpetrated against people from marginalised groups, and which perpetuate their marginalisation.

Only by recognising that oppression and harm happens on a structural level, and it is contributed to by every offensive joke, no matter if it is ‘ironic’; by every throwaway remark about rape, or domestic violence, or mental illness; by every racist cartoon and every dog-whistle xenophobic immigration panic Daily Mail article and every Unilad facebook post; only when we recognise that, can we begin to understand why ‘offence’ is not the right way to frame this debate. What to me is personally upsetting – and I’ve been called an awful lot of things in recent months – is to others actively oppressive.

Instead of focussing on ‘offence’, we should be focussing on material harm, whether that be physical or psychological – and there really isn’t that much of a distinction between them. This has all been said before, in much more eloquent terms, by Katherine Cross of Feministing. She says, ‘Being made to fear for your life is not the same as feeling hurt by speech. Losing your job as a result of stereotypes or harassment contained in speech is not the same as feeling personally offended by that speech. Being shot by the police because of ideas about your skin color transmitted through discourse is not the same as merely being offended by it. Being outed against your will is not the same as having your feelings hurt by it. It is the deeds that flow from words which concern us, and which cannot be contained by the concept of offensiveness.’

These are the kinds of material harm with which we should concern ourselves. Speaking out against these acts, which happen every single day, across the world, is a radical expression of free speech. Some people will tell you that the most important thing we can do is to listen to views we consider vile and toxic, as though inciting racial hatred or transphobia or misogyny is some kind of victory for Enlightenment values.

I think J.S. Mill would be sick to his stomach if he were alive to see the kinds of people who have appropriated his ideas today, and the ends to which they have put them. Never mind the fact that the ideal Millian arena in which good ideas will always beat the bad ideas just doesn’t exist. Never mind the rhetorical tricks and flourishes and seductive prose that awful people use to convince ordinary people to join them in hatred.

Instead of celebrating the most down-punching, prejudiced, bigoted acts of speech that can be summoned up in the name of ‘free inquiry’, we should be celebrating the up-punchers, the radicals who offend those in power, the non-conformists who refuse to be cowed by bullies who wield ‘the Enlightenment’ and ‘robust public debate’ as sticks to beat them with.

Yes, we should have freedom of speech. Yes, we should have debate, and argument, and vigorous disagreement. But we have to recognise that not all views are created equal, that you do not have a positive, protected right to hurt people, and ‘offence’ does not begin to cover the damage which our words can cause.

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The ‘New Political Correctness’ tastes of privilege and desperation

I had an email from The Spectator the other day, asking me to come on their podcast and discuss the latest work vomited directly from the mouth of professional Brendan, Brendan O’Neill. It’s on ‘the New Political Correctness’, which is apparently A Thing now. I’m not certain a) how it differs from the old political correctness, or b) whether it means anything other than ‘common human decency extended to more people than just straight white guys’, but there we go. I agreed, because someone has to try and convince poor Brendan of the error of his ways.

They sent me the articles, one of which, ‘An A-Z Guide to the New PC’, is essentially an excuse for Brendan to gleefully type ‘nigger’ and ‘tranny’ and get away with it. To quote Tom Slater, who works for Brendan’s pet hate machine Spiked, ‘someone should tell them that satire is supposed to be funny’. The other article, by Damian Thompson, begins by telling us that ‘transgender … includes transvestites and transsexuals’, before whining that nowadays one has to ‘patiently master the racial nomenclature that tripped up Benedict Cumberbatch’, because it really is awful that we can’t just talk about Orientals and Negroes anymore. The triptych of turgid tripe is rounded off by Rod Liddle lagubriously lamenting the fact that some people desire gender neutral pronouns. The whole thing would be quite funny if it weren’t for the fact that I can picture in my mind the hordes of Spectator readers nodding along and tutting at the arrogance and censoriousness of today’s young liberals.

Here is a bunny to take your mind off of the mental image of Rod Liddle, Damian Thompson and Brendan O’Neill in a hideous ecstasy of righteous privileged anger

I wasn’t aware that the podcast, which you can listen to here, would include both myself and Brendan talking at the same time until they Skyped me. I hadn’t expected to come face to face with Brendan until next month at the Oxford Union, when we’ll be debating ‘The right to free speech always includes the right to offend’, so it was a little bit of a shock. I haven’t listened back to the whole thing because I like the sound of my voice probably about as much as Brendan does, but a few things stuck in my mind.

He kept referring to me as Mr Squirrell, which was a little jarring – possibly because he thinks my name is funny, possibly because he didn’t think we’re on first name terms yet. I disagree – when someone writes an article lambasting you and referring to you as a ‘censorious leader’ of students, I think you form a certain connection.

Then there was his strange insistence that he’s a ‘progressive’, and he’s upset by the fact that today’s left-wing students don’t see everyone on earth as ‘equals’ and judge people based on their character rather than the colour of their skin. ‘See,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘You hate Martin Luther King, so really you’re a racist!’ I’m quite happy to judge people entirely on the content of their character when society starts doing that too. When people who’ve been systematically marginalised and oppressed because of the colour of their skin, or their gender, or their sexuality, are raised up to the same level of prosperity that middle class white men enjoy now, then I’ll happily judge people and their words and actions entirely on the basis of their character, rather than their background. But we’re not there yet. We’re so very far from there that pretending we are is nothing short of delusional or, as Brendan put it, ‘literally insane’. It’s a weird day when I get to play the pragmatist and accuse someone of being idealistic, but it happened.

I’ll let you listen and judge for yourself – there’s no doubt that Brendan (or Mr O’Neill, if he prefers) is a good speaker, and he has in common with some of the other right-wing pundits the ability to spin a seductive argument and reframe the debate in such a way that it almost seems like he’s on the moral highground. But if you peel back the thin veneer of intuitively appealing idealism and faux-egalitarianism, you can see it for what it is: a man from a dying breed of privilege, raging against the dying of the light.

The podcast is here, if that’s the sort of thing you’re in to.

What Rights does a Platform give you?

In the first part of what I hope will be an interesting series on freedom of speech and what I’ve decided to call ‘Platform Theory’, I talked a bit about what a platform is: something which can be used to amplify, legitimise and endorse others’ voices. In this post I want to cover what kind of rights you have with respect to platforms that you control.

I’m going to take two plausible claims about the rights which come with ownership of a platform, one negative and one positive:

The positive claim, let’s call it P1, goes: The owner of a platform may use that platform to amplify, legitimate or endorse any people or views that they wish.

The negative claimP2, goes: Nobody can force the owner of a platform to amplify, legitimate or endorse people or views which they do not wish to amplify, legitimate or endorse.

At first blush both of these claims, which I would call ‘libertarian platform theory’, seem fairly reasonable. I think there are some fairly fundamental problems with both of them, which I’ll deal with in turn.

First, let’s talk about P1. The immediate problem with this claim is that there are certain views which it is literally illegal to espouse. In the USA, these are restricted to libel and some incitements to violence, although the latter are extremely limited in scope. In the UK and EU, we are more willing to trade off freedom of speech against other values, such as social harmony and security, and as such there are restrictions not only on libel, slander and incitement to violence, but also incitement to hatred of various kinds and, in some cases, blasphemy.

It’s nigh impossible to proscribe the actual speech act – without instating a version of the Thought Police that Orwell could only have dreamt of, straight out of Minority Report, we cannot physically prevent people from saying things. Instead, the state can make certain speech acts costly to perform, as illustrated in the first section of the SEP article on Freedom of Speech*. The way that this is framed in economic language is interesting, but probably a subject for another time.

Costly Speech

Essentially, making a speech act costly means imposing some kind of sanction on people who either espouse or amplify particular views. This can be done by the state, constituting an incursion into legal freedom of speech. However, the notion of costly speech is particularly interesting when it’s cashed out in social terms. We can make the amplification, promotion or legitimation of a particular view more costly through social approbrium. For example, if someone within a friendship group continually makes racist remarks, they may risk being ostracised by the group, or at least find themselves on the receiving end of a verbal beatdown. That doesn’t mean that their freedom of speech is being infringed (and the interface between platform theory and debates about freedom of speech is a topic I’ll be covering in the near future), but it’s a clear example of how speech can be made costly in social terms.

An interesting case study here is the recent Dapper Laughs controversy. Daniel O’Reilly made rape jokes at gigs, as well as spouting homophobia and sexism in his ‘comedy’ on a regular basis. Rather than saying that he should be prosecuted – because he had done nothing illegal – activists put pressure on those who bankrolled him: ITV, who had given him a TV series; the various places which had agreed to host him on his tour; and the tour promoter, SJM. The argument they made was that by sponsoring O’Reilly’s work, they endorsed the things he said, many of which were irresponsible and misogynistic. Eventually, his TV show was not renewed for a second series and his live tour was pulled. Whilst there was never any legal pressure, the social action in terms of the sheer number of people who mobilised against him, as well as the targets they chose, resulted in his platforms being stripped from him. I would argue that in platforming O’Reilly, organisations were not necessarily endorsing his views, but they certainly legitimated them in some of the ways I talked about in the first post on this topic.

Revising the Positive Claim: Can you say what you like?

With this in mind, we can see that P1 needs some revision. We know that there are some speech acts which it is illegal to platform, and so we need to caveat these out. We also know that there are some speech acts which, whilst strictly speaking legal to platform, will almost certainly result in social pressure which may result in social and/or financial costs if you choose to platform them.

A revised P1*: The owner of a platform may use that platform to amplify, legitimate or endorse any view or person they wish, so long as it does not contravene the laws of the country this platforming occurs in. In addition, they may face costly backlash if they amplify, legitimate or endorse views which are socially unpopular.

This seems a fairly reasonable claim to make with regard to the positive rights one has to use their platform as they wish. I’ll cover the responsibilities which may come as the corollaries to these rights in another post soon.

The Negative Claim: Can you make me give you a platform?

The negative claim as I framed it earlier is P2: Nobody can force the owner of a platform to amplify, legitimate or endorse people or views which they do not wish to amplify, legitimate or endorse.

First, I’ll illustrate what this means in practice. Once there’s a framework in place for the simple cases, I’ll move on to what happens when the control of a space is contested, as was the case in the aborted (heh) Oxford abortion debate last year, or in the case of the Charlie Hebdo comics, or the BBC.

Prima facie it seems reasonable that nobody can force me to give them or their views a platform which I am in control of. If somebody sends me a tweet reading ‘Pls RT this important message about EVIL GM broad beans #fuckmonsanto’, I am within my rights to ignore them, refuse, or send them back a tweet reading ‘just wait until you hear about the pumpkin conspiracy’ and gleefully imagine the look of sheer panic in their eyes.

Similarly, if I were the comment editor of the Daily Mail and somebody sent me an opinion piece which talked about how great the modern world is and how it’s fantastic that there are lots of people working towards gender equality and maybe we should stop valuing women purely on the basis of their physical appearance and hey let’s get rid of the sidebar of shame and stop blaming all of our problems on hordes of immigrants who mysteriously manage to steal our jobs at the same time as lazing around collecting benefits, I would be within my rights to reject it. The Daily Mail has an editorial policy of only publishing articles which are either inane or pure evil, and the editors, who control the various platforms which constitute the overall paper, have the right to reject articles which do not fit in with this ethos. Except when they are legally obliged to print particular things – for example, when they’re forced to print a retraction which clarifies that 4 out of 5 new nurses are not, in fact, foreign – they cannot be forced to amplify, legitimate or endorse views which they don’t want to.

Contested platforms – or, should we debate abortion culture, republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and platform UKIP?

So far, so simple. Whoever has control of a platform gets to choose who gets to take advantage of that platform. But what about cases where control is unclear, or is contested? I think there are three main kinds of case like this. In the first, there is a conflict between different stakeholders who all have some degree of control over a platform. In the second, there is a conflict between the views of those who control the platform and those who do not control it, but have some stake or vested interest in what is platformed. In the third, there are legal regulations which may force the platform controller to act in certain ways.

The Aborted Oxford Abortion Debate

The first case can be illustrated by the Oxford abortion debate. Towards the end of 2014, the student society Oxford Students for Life (OSFL) had planned to hold a debate on abortion. It was entitled “This House believes that Britain’s abortion culture harms us all”. There were to be two speakers: Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill. The debate was to be held in Christ Church college, Oxford. In response to this, a group on Facebook was set up entitled “What the fuck is abortion culture?”, where around 300 people planned to protest the event. The debate was eventually cancelled because OSFL had booked the room too late, and the college Censors said that there was not enough time to assess the security concerns before the time of the event.  OSFL tried and failed to find an alternative venue for the debate, and so it did not go ahead. It is worthy of note that they could have chosen to hold the debate in one of their bedrooms, or the street – however, they chose not to do this.

The popular interpretation of events was that pro-choice students had got the debate shut down. For sake of argument, let’s pretend that’s true. This is a case of a contested platform. First, let’s make a small but important distinction: in many instances, the words ‘college’ and ‘university’ are interchangeable. In the context of Oxford and Cambridge, however, they are not. The ‘university’ is the institution at which one studies, with lecture halls etc spread out across the space of the town. The ‘college’ is the place where students live, eat and socialise. This means that the above debate was due to take place in a space where students lived, and the conflict is thus one between two or more sets of students who are stakeholders in the platform that is the college. One set of students, presumably including some of OSFL, wanted the debate to go ahead. Another set did not. How should these cases be decided? Could the students of OSFL force the debate to happen against the wishes of the pro-choice students?

The answer probably lies in democracy. There are three ways of deciding it: elected representatives, majority rule, or through stakeholder analysis. In this instance, the democratically elected representatives of the student body, the JCR, said that they did not want the debate to go ahead. If they’d wanted to, students of the college could probably have called an Open Meeting to decide whether the debate should go ahead, and then there would be majority rule. This would likely be problematic because most people wouldn’t actually turn up to the meeting, and so it collapses into de facto stakeholder analysis. Under stakeholder analysis, the people who have the most interest in whether the debate goes ahead or not get to decide whether it does. In this instance the biggest stakeholders are OSFL and students who strongly feel that their college should not be host to a pro-life organisation’s debate on abortion. In an Open Meeting, these are the most likely groups to turn out in numbers, and so the vote would likely be decided by which of these groups could get the most support.

A stakeholder analysis could go one of two ways. One could argue that the harm done to residents of the college through the debate taking place there supersedes the utility that OSFL get through the debate happening. Conversely, one could argue that the harm done to OSFL members in not being able to have this platform to hold their debate is worth the emotional or mental cost to those students who did not want it to happen.

In reality, all of this analysis is somewhat unnecessary because the debate was cancelled for bureaucratic reasons (as is so often the case in this kind of controversy). However, it does serve to illuminate the issues that arise when the use of a platform is contested. Who gets to decide whether a view or person or debate should get the use of that platform? If some of the stakeholders don’t want it, should they get their way or just suck it up? It’s an interesting conundrum.

Should Newspapers Republish the Charlie Hebdo Cartoons?

In the wake of the Paris attacks, in which a number of people, including cartoonists from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, were killed by Islamist extremists, there has been a profound pressure on the British press to republish cartoons from the magazine.

To be clear, the magazine satirised most groups in society, but the pressure in this instance is to republish specifically those cartoons which satirise Islam and Muslims, particularly comics which depict the Prophet Mohammed.

There are a number of reasons why papers might not wish to republish these cartoons. They might be worried about putting their own staff at risk of reprisal from extremists. They might be concerned about the racialised (and arguably racist) depictions of Muslims in the cartoons. They might not want to further vilify and victimise Muslim populations at a time when attacks on Muslims and their places of worship have seen a sharp uptick. They might just not want to republish the cartoons.

However, a lot of these papers’ readers really want them to republish the cartoons. Some of them have gone so far as to abuse and even threaten those papers which do not publish them. Leaving aside the irony of sending threats to people for refusing to publish cartoons in the name of freedom of press, let’s look at the conflict of values here. In this instance, the clash is between the wishes of those who control the platforms – the editors of papers and TV channels – and some members of their audiences. Should these particularly vocal audience members be able to force press outlets to publish the cartoons?

My feeling on this is that they shouldn’t, because the editors have control of the platforms for a reason, and if they start to publish offensive cartoons purely because some people want them to in order to make a point, the entire purpose of freedom of press is somewhat compromised. If readers are so appalled by this display of what they perceive as moral cowardice that they decide to take their business elsewhere, then there may be financial implications for the papers and they may wish to reconsider in future. However, this form of economic disincentive excepted, I cannot see a decent reason for allowing the pressure of public opinion to force individual press outlets to publish the cartoons. It may be good, on the whole, if one or two outlets do choose to do so, but no individual paper should be forced into it. They should maintain control over whose voices they amplify, legitimate and endorse.

Must the BBC platform UKIP?

The short answer to the question above is ‘sadly, yes’. Even if the controller of the BBC didn’t want to have Nigel Farage on Question Time ever again, the guidelines of the corporation oblige them to give representation to parties who have a certain degree of electoral support. This is a fairly cut-and-dry instantiation of legal or contractual obligations forcing those who control a platform to provide particular people or groups with access to that platform, regardless of their wishes.

Revising the Negative Claim

In light of the examples above, we need to revise P2 accordingly. There are clearly circumstances in which people who (partially) control a platform can be forced to give it to others against their own wishes. So:

P2*: Nothing, save legal or contractual obligations, can force the owner of a platform to amplify, legitimate or endorse people or views which they do not wish to amplify, legitimate or endorse. In cases where there are multiple people who claim to control the platform, they must decide between themselves whether a view or person should be given that platform.

Conclusions

In this post I’ve tried to elucidate the rights that come with the ownership or control of a platform. I don’t think there’s anything overly contentious in here, though some may disagree with me that the ‘libertarian’ principles I proposed at the beginning need any revision whatsoever, and doubtless there will be some who disagree (wrongly) with my insinuation that the Daily Mail is the physical embodiment of the Platonic ideal of evil. However, I think – and I hope you agree – that Platform Theory gives us a number of useful tools with which to analyse the various problems that arise with regard to speech in society today. That’s clear from the way that it can be applied to a number of recent controversies without issue. I’m sure there is a great deal more analysis that could be done of the specific cases I’ve talked about. For example, does providing the Charlie Hebdo comics with a platform legitimate or endorse the views of the authors? Are there are further issues in the way that the Oxford debate was dealt with in regard to whether providing Brendan O’Neill in particular with a platform meant that OSFL legitimated not only his views on the issue at hand but also on, for example, trans people? I’m not certain in either of these cases, and I’d welcome comments on these issues as well as the framework as a whole.

*On a side note, the SEP Freedom of Speech article is a fairly lucid exposition of the problems associated with free speech as they relate to principles in philosophy. It primarily covers John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle and how it relates to harmful speech in contrast to merely offensive speech, and seeks to understand whether free speech can be legally restricted on the basis of offence alone, finding few strong arguments in favour.

What is a Platform?

No Platform for Fascism. No Platform for Rape Apologists. No Platform for Transphobes.

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.

No Platform protests in Cambridge against Dominique Strauss Khan

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.

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.

Protesters at Cambridge against Marine Le Pen

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.

Moazzam Begg is one person being given a platform at the Cambridge Union this term

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.