How to Write Undergraduate Essays Super Good (or at least a little bit more better)

How to Write Essays Super Good (or at least a bit more better)

By Tim Squirrell

This brief guide is intended to provide you with basic tips which will allow you to succeed in undergraduate essay writing. If you follow the advice presented here, your essays will probably be quite good. If you don’t, they might still be alright, but they probably won’t be as good as they could have been. Follow it if you want. It’s your choice. I’m not forcing you or anything. I’m not your dad.

The TL;DR

For the terminally lazy:

  1. Find 10-20 relevant books and articles from the reading list and/or Google Scholar searches. Well referenced Wikipedia or Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles are your friends for both understanding and writing about a topic (read and cite the references, not the articles themselves. Obviously.).
  2. Skim the relevant sections for relevant quotes.
  3. Write down those relevant quotes.
  4. Have a think, put the argument and essay together.
  5. Your essay is done.

Obviously this doesn’t cover everything. That’s what the next 2000 words are for. Stop being so lazy.

Reading

Summary: read the reading list, don’t read books cover to cover, find additional articles in bibliographies of reading list articles, skim abstracts for relevance, write down notes with page numbers and quotes. Read critically.

Unless you’re Foucault (and you’re not Foucault), then the foundation of any good essay is a solid set of references. This isn’t just so that you can look good and your tutor thinks you’ve done the reading. It’s because, no matter how clever you are and what percentile of the country you came in your school leaving exams, your ideas still aren’t original. Trust me. You might think that you’re the first person to discover moral relativism, or situationist perspective on human behaviour, or discursive constructions. Spoilers: you’re not. Someone has done it before, and they’ve almost certainly done it better. That’s not to say that you can’t have cool ideas, or express those ideas in interesting ways. You just need to make sure that you cite the people who came up with those ideas originally, and ideally show how you differ from or improve upon them. The only way you can do this (and consequently, the only way to get a decent mark) is to do some reading.

  1. Look at the reading list. If it’s incredibly long, you probably won’t want to (or be able) to read it all. However, that is not an excuse to not read any of it. Look through the list, identify if there are any readings marked as essential. Read them. If there aren’t any essential readings, pick a few which look interesting and relevant, then read them.
  2. Read some more. If the reading list is really short, you’ll need to go beyond it. If it’s long, this is still relevant. Look through the reference lists of the papers and books you’ve just read. See where their ideas came from. Mark out a few of the most promising-looking readings. Read them.
  3. There is a difference between reading to understand the topic, and reading that you plan to reference. It is totally fine to use Wikipedia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, lecture notes etc to familiarise yourself with the key arguments and concepts. It is considerably less fine to cite them.
  4. Books. Do not read whole books. It’s a waste of your time. You won’t remember any of it, it will drain all of your energy, and you only get one reference and viewpoint out of it. Read the intro and conclusion so that you get the gist of their argument. Pick a chapter from the contents page which looks like it’s relevant to your essay. Read that. As above, find relevant references and follow them up.
  5. Articles. Read the abstract first. Does it look like it’s relevant? If not, don’t waste your time. If it does, read it. Check the bibliography as above.
  6. Read critically. For the sake of all that is holy, read critically. This is absolutely essential. Don’t just stare at the pages and absorb them, bovine-like, for the purposes of regurgitation into your essay. Think about:
    1. The central claim the author is making. Usually there is only one, perhaps two. Summarise it in one sentence if you can.
    2. What is the frame of their argument? When in history is it set? Who are the key actors? Are they responding to another author? If so, what is the argument they’re responding to? Try to position their argument in context. This allows you to:
    3. Critically assess the claims made. This obviously doesn’t just mean ‘say they’re wrong’. They might well be wrong, but you’ll need to find reasons for it. Generate a list of three reasons for each line of attack you want to take. Scrap the weakest two. If you think they’re right, why are they right? Are there other authors who corroborate their claims? Are there logical reasons to prefer their argument?

Make sure you take notes on everything you read. Put page numbers in those notes. In fact, write down a few potentially useful (and ideally flexible) quotes verbatim. Using them makes it look like you’ve actually read the text, rather than just picking a page at random and hoping that it happens to contain the right argument or that your examiner doesn’t know the literature at all well. I still handwrite quotes in my notes, and I’m working on my PhD. There aren’t many ways in which I’d recommend being like me. This is one of them.

You don’t want to get penalised because you didn’t reference your readings properly after you’ve put in all that effort to make sure that your arguments are founded in the literature.

Answering the Question

Summary: identify key terms in the question, define those terms, question the question (what are the assumptions behind it?).

Some questions are straightforward. They might ask you to ‘critically assess’ some claim or concept, or ask you a simple question which you’ll have to answer in a complex way. Other questions aren’t so simple. They’ll make a statement and tell you to discuss it. They might ask you to compare and contrast two different ideas, or say which of two theories is the more accurate. We’ll talk about both types of questions here.

  1. Identify the key terms in the question. If the question is “what is the best solution to the demarcation problem?”, you’re going to want to identify what you think the examiner means by the terms ‘solution’ and ‘demarcation problem’. How are you going to define and operationalise those terms in your essay? This is essential, because your argument has to have a clear definition of the terms you’re using in order for it to be coherent and responsive. This doesn’t mean you should use lazy constructions like “I am going to define ‘demarcation problem’ as ‘the question of how we can define ‘science””. That’s a perfectly reasonable definition (if you can defend it, and you should give a reason you’ve chosen a certain definition), but you need to be a little less clunky. Something like “When we talk about the problem of demarcation, we refer to the question of how exactly we can define ‘science’ as a sphere of human activity which is somehow special”, will do just fine.
  2. Question the question. You’ll hear this quite a lot, and you’ll probably wonder what on earth it means. It’s important to understand it, because it can be the key to getting a high mark. Every term in a question is ambiguous. Every question has hidden assumptions behind it. You can question these assumptions. For example, in the question about ‘the demarcation problem’ above, there are assumptions that there is a single problem of demarcation, as well as a single best solution to that problem. Sometimes it’s enough to point out that these assumptions exist, and then to proceed with the essay by clarifying the definitions you’re using and the assumptions you’re working with. Sometimes you might think that the assumptions are fundamentally mistaken, or disguise a more important question. In that case, you’ll need to point this out, and then proceed to explain why, and to make your arguments within the essay using your revised understanding of the question.
  3. If the question is “X statement. Discuss.” then you have, broadly, four options on how to answer it – see below. Try not to hedge your bets: this isn’t AS Level Critical Thinking, you don’t need to give both sides equal weighting and say “ooh, it’s a really tricky question and there are great arguments on both sides”. Have opinions.
    1. This is true, and that’s great
    2. This is true, and that’s awful
    3. This isn’t true, and it should be true
    4. This isn’t true, and that’s fine.
  4. How are you going to relate your argument to the existing literature? Who are the key authors you plan to draw on? Make sure you know their arguments reasonably well and have armed yourself with flexible quotes from their work. If you can, familiarise yourself with the people who think they’re wrong and awful. Figure out if there are arguments which are unresolved and see if you can make a contribution towards resolving them.

Once you’ve clarified all the terms, you can start to put together your arguments and write the essay.

Structure

Summary: tell me everything you’re going to say in your introduction, structure your points like you’re in primary school, don’t bring new material into the conclusion.

Ninety nine percent of the structure of your essay is exactly the same as you learned in secondary school. You might think you’re too good for Point, Evidence, Explain. You’re not. Especially if you think you are.

  1. Introductions: start your intro with the central claim of your essay. If I’m reading it, I want to know within literally five seconds what you’re trying to convince me of.
    1. Next, think about what you need to prove in order to make that claim. What might be the immediate negative reaction of someone reading your central claim? How can you defend yourself against that response? Ideally you want to be able to split your burdens of proof (the things you need to prove in order for your argument to be true) into a few different points. These will be your paragraphs.
    2. From here, write down what you’re going to argue, and in what order. It is genuinely fine (indeed, good) to say “First, I will prove x. Next, I will go on to show that y. Finally, drawing on Bloggs (1999) I will argue that z.”
    3. The final part of your introduction should tell me what conclusions you’re going to draw, or at the very least say “I conclude by examining the implications of my argument for theory/author/other-argument”.
    4. This is to say, if you’ve been taught that your essay should unravel as you go, and I shouldn’t understand your whole argument until the very end, then you’ve been taught wrong. Don’t do that. I should know exactly what you’re going to argue by the time I’ve finished your introduction. This isn’t an Agatha Christie novel, it’s an argument. Save the twists and turns.
    5. When thinking about your argument in the introduction, consider the tips above regarding questioning the question and defining terms. You can either do this within the confines of the introduction, or you can say something to the effect of “First, I will define what it would mean to be able to solve the problem of demarcation, querying the definitions of these terms and showing how their intrinsic ambiguities may create difficulties in argument.”
  2. Body: PEE on your essay. It sounds infantile. It is infantile. Do it anyway.
    1. Point: what are you claiming? This is also known as the topic sentence. At the end of the first sentence of each paragraph, I should know what to expect from that paragraph. Don’t tantalise the examiner. It’s an essay, not a terrible surprise birthday party.
    2. Evidence: who has said this thing before you said it? How are you corroborating the point you’re trying to make? Please don’t say ‘I just thought of it’. Find someone who’s said it before. Are there statistics which back up your argument? If so, where are they from? If there’s more than one piece of evidence, all the better.
    3. Explain: why does the evidence you’ve presented prove the point you’re trying to make? I’ll go into this part of arguing more in the next section.
    4. One final thing: in most essays, there should be a development of thought from one paragraph to the next. In some instances your arguments may genuinely be discrete units, but in most instances they should flow in some way. Try and play around with your structure such that your body paragraphs are in the order that best allows the essay to feel fluent and smooth.
  3. Conclusion: do not put new things in your conclusion. It’s not big and it’s not clever. We’re not just saying this for our health. If you’re adding new arguments in your conclusion, it’s not a conclusion.
    1. Recapitulate your argument. Readers are stupid and have terrible memories. What did you prove in your essay? How did you prove it? This is like doing your introduction all over again, but with slightly nicer words.
    2. Synthesise your claims. What are the implications of what you’ve proved? Do the strands of your argument come together to prove that Immanuel Kant was full of nonsense when he wrote the Critique of Pure Reason?  Do they leave the field open for a new line of enquiry into the semiotics of phallic imagery in male-female initiation messages on contemporary dating applications? Why should we care about the things you’ve written? Repeat your central claim, tell me why you’ve proven it. Synthesis often involves thinking about the state of your field or of a society at that moment, and trying to show how your argument might apply or be useful elsewhere. It means bringing together all of the things you’ve proved to make more far-reaching points (but don’t overreach – this isn’t going to change the face of your subject forever. You look silly if you say that.)

Analysis

Summary: why is it true? Why is it important? Structure: claim, counter-claim, rebut counter-claim. Don’t be mean to your opponents.

This is the stuff that actually makes up your argument. If you perform poorly at this, you might as well pack up and go home. Luckily, it’s really not that hard.

  1. Why is it true? If you’re making a claim, you need to tell me why that claim is correct. Think of a potential response to your argument, perhaps from an author you’re arguing against. Write out that response, then tell me why it doesn’t defeat your argument, or at least why it only mitigates it.
  2. Why is it important? In the context of the question you’re answering, and the frame you’ve provided for your argument, why should I care about the point you’re making at this point in the essay? Once you’ve proven (using PEE) that your argument stands, I want to know the significance of it.
  3. Structuring arguments: to create a really decent paragraph, you ideally want to follow one of two structures. Remember that at each step within each structure you need to use PEE.
    1. Claim -> Counter-claim -> Rebuild Claim.
    2. Foil (the claim you’re arguing against) -> Refutation (your reasoning as to why they’re mistaken) -> Rebuttal (their plausible response to your argument) -> Re-refutation (finally putting their argument to bed).
  4. Finally, make sure you formulate every claim in the strongest possible terms. Don’t make your opponent look like they have no arguments, or take the weakest version of their argument. Think about the strongest possible response to the claim you’ve put forward, then beat that. It will make your argument stronger. If you can’t beat it, find another argument.

Using Evidence

Summary: get Zotero. Reference properly. Cite the originator of an idea. Go beyond the reading list.

Okay, so you’ve written an incredible essay. You’re ready to hand it in. You’re going to get an 80.

Not so fast, hot shot. Your reference list is a mess, you haven’t cited half your sources and half of your bibliography is Wikipedia pages.

  1. How to reference: this is totally dependent on your department and university. They will likely have provided a style guide. Read it. Follow it. Don’t lose marks.
  2. Make sure that when you’re citing, you cite the original person who came up with the idea, not some random who’s also citing them. This is a classic error. Don’t make it.
  3. Get Zotero, or Mendeley, or Endnote. You will save yourself literally days over the course of your university career. They allow you to reference as you write, and you can create and reformat your bibliography and citations at the touch of a button. If you don’t do this then you have only yourself to blame when you’re spending the last days of your undergraduate degree desperately trying to find books on Google so that you can write down their details by hand.
  4. Go beyond the reading list. This is the single easiest way to get more marks. If I see an argument citing an author whom nobody else has mentioned, and it’s a decent argument, it will make my day. Genuinely. I have a sad life.
  5. Critically engage. Be aware whilst you’re reading that all arguments and authors are fallible. Think about the text you’re reading and think how you might respond to it.

General Tips

  1. Litmus test for whether your argument is pernicious nonsense: see if you can summarise it to a friend who’s in a different subject area. If you can’t, it’s probably not because they’re stupid. It’s probably because it’s a bad argument.
  2. Read over your introduction when you’re done. Does it still make sense? Often your argument will change over the course of the essay, and you’ll need to alter your intro accordingly.ave you supported every single one of them? If not, sort it out.
  3. Once you’ve written the whole essay, read over it again. Look at every premise you’ve used and claim you’ve made. H
  4. Life tips (these are ideal habits, do as I say not as I do):
    1. Don’t do all nighters. They’ll mess up your sleep pattern, you’ll ruin your entire next day, and you’ll likely produce work that a 5-year old would be quick to disown. Do your essays on time, or early.
    2. Once you’ve done your essay early, leave it a day or two. Come back to it. Proof-read it. Don’t just look for typographical errors. Are you still sure your argument makes sense? If not, rewrite relevant parts.
    3. Lots of people say that you should write in chunks of 500 words as you’re reading. This is one way of doing things, and it works for some people. I prefer a different method. If you have a week to write an essay, spend the first 3 days or so reading and making notes, then spend a bit of time thinking over your argument, write it all in a day or so (you’ll likely find this easiest because you can get into the rhythm of it), then take a day off, come back and proof-read it before you hand it in.

One final thing: it bears repeating that your ideas are not new. Unless you’re working on a Masters thesis or, at the very least your final undergraduate dissertation, it is vanishingly unlikely that you are the first person to think a particular thought and publish it. What you can do is synthesise old ideas into interesting arguments. Do that. Get good marks. Be (briefly) happy.

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.