Expertise as Attribution – Towards a Solution to the Post-Fact World

The following is the text of a talk I gave at a symposium entitled The Politics of Expertise in Media and Cultural Research at Birmingham City University on the 30th November 2016. The references I used in constructing this text are available on request – reach me on Twitter @timsquirrell.

Expertise as Attribution

Tim Squirrell

PhD Candidate in Department of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies

University of Edinburgh

“I think people in this country have had enough of experts” – Michael Gove MP

“Experts, soothsayers, astrologers, are all in much the same category” – Jacob Rees Mogg MP

“Well, you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?” – Stewart Lee

A truly tremendous quantity of ink has been spilled over the past year over the problem of expertise. “Post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. The consensus seems to be that publics in Western liberal democracies have lost their trust in experts and expertise. The questions of when, why, and how this happened, and how the expert class can possibly hope to redeem itself are perpetually mooted in hand-wringing think-pieces in The Guardian and The Spectator alike.

In this talk, I’m going to do three things. First, I’ll problematise the existing, hidden consensus that experts just exist, and that it is our choice whether to listen to them or not. Second, I’ll propose an alternative view that conceptualises expertise as something which doesn’t exist a priori, but is attributed by particular audiences to particular individuals, groups and institutions in order to solve particular problems. Third, I’ll show why, far from being a simple redefinition which makes no practical difference, there are some specific advantages of taking this viewpoint, centring around (i) the way we ask those who would claim expert status to present themselves, and (ii) our ability to dismiss specific actors, rather than the concept of expertise as a whole.

The question that nobody seems to be asking is “What do we mean by ‘experts’?”. It’s taken as a given that when we say the word ‘expert’, we know of whom we speak: late middle-aged white men in suits and glasses, staring out at us from a television screen, speaking on behalf of a university, or an organisation with some acronym nobody can remember. IFS, IEA, ECB, CPS: they might as well all work for the same company, for all the scrutiny we give their credentials. We can identify who counts as an expert a priori: they speak for established institutions, they have qualifications and credentials and letters after their names, and they have experience to back up their authoritative-sounding words.

There are a couple of major issues with this. First, it allows individuals (and whole communities) to dismiss the entirety of what has come to be known as the “expert class”, without having to engage with their statements or arguments. When these experts make predictions about the economy, or elections, or the climate, they inherently stake (to some degree) their reputation on the veracity of their predictions. The problem is, if we link all experts together, when someone (or a group of people – say, psephologists) gets something wrong, then they harm not just their own reputation but the reputation of everyone linked to them through the label ‘expert’. When we bind people together with a particular label, we allow other people to use that label to have blanket beliefs about that whole group (experts) rather than making decisions about smaller, more appropriate, sub-divisions (psephologists, or Nate Silver, or the Huffington Post pollsters).

Second, it facilitates the complacency of the aforementioned expert class. If they speak, and nobody listens, they can throw up their hands and say, “Well, we gave them the facts and they refused to accept them. We can’t help it if the public are stupid and mistrustful.” There’s nothing they could have done to foresee this, and now that the epistemic gates are open and the horse of trust has bolted, there’s very little they can do to steer that horse back into the stable and regain the confidence of the public. Clearly, the solution is simply to end democracy and delegate all authority to the expert class, because the people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions when presented with the objective facts.

These problems alone should probably give us serious pause: is this view productive? Is it something we want to keep with us in this brave new post-fact world? When combined with some of the more conceptual issues I’m going to outline as we go on, I’m convinced we should wholeheartedly reject the view of expertise which says “these are the experts, believe them or not”.

“But what, pray, is the alternative?” I hear you cry, “We can’t allow just anyone to call themselves an expert. That way charlatanism lies!” Well, little strawman that I just made up, you’re halfway there. The alternative is as follows.

We could, if we so chose, decide to carve up the word conceptually and acquire knowledge purely through the mediation of our own senses. But our senses are unreliable, and there’s not enough time or money to allow us to imbibe the knowledge of every discipline under the sun. So for most of us, most of the time, we delegate our epistemic authority to others: we allow them to tell us what’s true, and we decide how to act upon it. As children we listen to parents and teachers; as adults we read news publications and books, listen to particular individuals we find compelling or inspiring, heed the advice of our doctors regarding our health, and broadly take for granted that we aren’t being lied to or misled.

There are certain ways in which we try to tell the difference between those experts we ought to trust and those who are incompetent, misleading or just plain wrong. We can examine how they argue: how well do they present their arguments, are they quick to produce defeaters or counter-defeaters for the arguments of others? We can look at their track record of making good predictions, we can try to examine any potential biases or vested interests they might have, we can scrutinise their credentials, or we can look at how many other putative experts agree with them.

There are numerous problems with each of these metrics which render it very difficult to tell between ‘good’ experts and ‘bad’ experts. Often those who know the most aren’t necessarily the best at arguing their side of a debate (a problem I will attempt to solve with my view later on). Moreover, it is almost impossible for us to assess the claims of experts on a technical basis, because the very reason we are listening to them is that the knowledge they are articulating is esoteric and epistemically inaccessible. Similarly, what makes a “good prediction” is up for debate, so track records are difficult to assess. Most individuals in a given industry or field likely have some biasing factors behind the things they are saying, because nobody is objective and anyone who says otherwise is lying or deluded. Finally, if we’re relying on the agreement of other potential experts, then we just defer the problem of identifying “good experts” one step down the line.

Most of our actions, then, rely upon trust in others. When we decide to believe what someone says, we don’t usually do so based on pure logical reasoning. Instead, we listen to them based on a function of whether we trust them (qua friend, or parent, or expert, or politician) and whether what they are saying sounds intuitively plausible. Crucially, intuitive plausibility itself is contingent on our prior beliefs. If what someone is telling us conflicts with a deeply-held belief – they’re telling me the Earth is flat when I’ve been informed my entire life that it is round, for instance – then it’s unlikely I’m going to abandon my prior belief in favour of what they’re now telling me. That’s important, because it provides further fuel to the pyre of the realist view of expertise: if I have a prior disposition not to believe people we call ‘experts’, because I perceive them to have been mistaken before, then it’s unlikely that their telling me something is going to have a large positive impact upon my propensity to believe it.

Delegating our epistemic authority – our ability to carve up the world conceptually – is incredibly common. When we give that authority to a particular person, group, or institution, and we do so for the purpose of solving a particular problem or class of problems, I call those actors ‘experts’. We delegate our authority on matters astrophysical to astrophysicists; we listen to oncologists about cancer; we heed the words of the weather forecaster on meteorological matters. They are our experts on those things. Crucially, this means that they do not already have expert status, putting the burden upon individuals and communities to decide whether or not to validate that status. Rather, we grant them that status when they are able to provide information that is useful for the resolution of particular kinds of problems. Expertise doesn’t exist independent of an audience to grant the status of expert.

What are the implications of this? The little straw-man from earlier might say that now anyone can be an expert, and that this will only speed our civilisation’s inevitable decline into chaos. On the contrary, tiny straw-man. The realist view means that those we designate as experts are never required to learn how to communicate effectively: they’re told that all they have to do is say the facts, and the public will listen – and if they don’t, more fool them. When we switch to an attributionalist view, we are able to place the onus upon those who wish to be considered experts to step up their dialectical game. It’s no longer enough just to sit back on a throne made of credentials and qualifications. Charlatans, hustlers and liars will always be able to peddle nonsense smoothly. We have to trust that those who know what they are talking about will be able to engage with them and show why they are incorrect. We have to trust that, when presented with equal rhetorical skill, truth will be vivified by its collision with error.

Further, and I think potentially even more importantly, when we refuse to engage in a system which identifies and protects a particular “expert class”, we afford ourselves the ability to avoid future situations like the one in which we find ourselves today. By recognising that expertise is a status rather than a trait, we head off at the pass any attempts to tar all ‘experts’ with the same brush. Instead of fetishizing credentials as the sole means by which people can enter the expert class, we should allow anyone to call themselves an expert, and then to have that claim tested through argument. Instead of dismissing an entirely disparate group of people who happen to have been lumped together we enable ourselves to dismiss individuals who make bad judgements, or institutions which have a reputation for making bad calls.

This is incredibly freeing. An economist makes a bad forecast? Be hesitant about trusting them in future. All economists fail to predict and prevent some financial catastrophe? Be incredibly wary of them, unless particular individuals or institutions show themselves to be worthy of a second chance. The failures of pollsters shouldn’t be used to render untrustworthy the predictions of political pundits; likewise, the success of one technocratic elite shouldn’t be seen as validation for other, unrelated people who happen to have a few degrees under their belts.

Expertise as a concept has to endure, and for this it has to be flexible enough to allow audiences to attribute it where they see fit. If they choose some charlatan with the “best words” and clever one-liners, we have to be prepared to fight them (discursively, of course) with equal levels of rhetorical polish. But crucially, those who actually do have knowledge, or skill, or predictive or explanatory powers, should be able to win out against those who do not, provided that they too are good at arguing and presenting their ideas clearly and simply to those who are not familiar with their fields.

If we do all of this, then maybe those who know what they are talking about have a chance of coming back from this anti-intellectual, anti-expert moment we find ourselves in. But if we don’t, then we’re doomed to repeat the technocratic mistakes of the past. We shouldn’t ever again have to hear that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. I hope that we don’t.

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.

Why Free Speech isn’t absolute and it’s okay to be vulnerable

I don’t really mind if you read this, it’s mainly for my own peace of mind following an interesting week. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite so many people send me hate over the internet – I’ve been called everything from a ‘bell’ and a ‘dickhead’ to ‘moronic’ and a ‘patronising snob’, I’ve had an article in a student newspaper call for my expulsion, and the better half of a hundred copies of The Spectator sent to my work address, sporting a cover story on the ‘new enemies of free speech’. If I’m honest, I’ve mostly found it all quite amusing – I think there was only one point at which the whole thing got a little too much and started to upset me, but I started learning a while ago that you just can’t take anonymous comments too seriously.

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Just some of my delighted readers

What happened?

So I thought I’d recap what happened, and then chat a bit about where I think we went wrong. This week there was going to be a debate in Christ Church, Oxford. For those unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of Oxbridge, they are collegiate universities – that is, when you go to study there, you are put into a college, which is where you eat, sleep, socialise, have pastoral and academic support etc. The debate was to be run by an organisation called Oxford Students for Life (OSFL), and the motion was ‘This House believes Britain’s abortion culture hurts us all’. There were two speakers, Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill, both quite prominent journalists.

When the JCR (Junior Combination Room – essentially the elected representatives of the student body of a college) got wind of the event, they lobbied the college to reconsider holding it, on the basis of the threat to the emotional and mental wellbeing and safety of the students of the college. A couple of other groups in Oxford, including an ad hoc event set up entitled ‘What the fuck is ‘Abortion Culture’?’, said they would turn up and protest. The college decided that there was not enough time to adequately address the safety concerns, and therefore decided the event would not go ahead in their premises. OSFL attempted and failed to find another venue at short notice, and so the debate did not happen.

Ironically enough, this was, on the college’s end, nothing to do with protecting student welfare. The reason they didn’t allow the debate to go ahead was, I was informed last night by a Christ Church student, because the college requires rooms to be booked three days in advance, and OSFL left it until two days before their debate to do it, meaning that what was seen as an excuse – ‘not enough time to address safety concerns’ – was actually college bureaucracy in action. In her article for the Independent, Niamh McIntyre gives a better explanation of this.

Abortion-debate

Regardless of exactly why the college shut it down, the result was that both Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill were very unhappy. Tim published an article in the Telegraph saying that ‘Free speech is under assault on campus’, and Brendan O’Neill wrote a leader article for The Spectator called ‘The Stepford Students’, which referred to his opposers as ‘the new enemies of free speech’. A number of people, myself included, noted the irony in their claim that their free speech was being suppressed coming from articles in the national press. Neither Tim nor Brendan appeared to appreciate the joke.

My role in this little fracas came in two parts: first a twitter spat, then an article. Beware when clicking the first link – reading the entirety of a twitter argument can be both incredibly time-consuming and harmful to your sanity. Essentially I tweeted some criticism of Tim Stanley’s article, and then various people got upset at this because I’m currently the President of the Cambridge Union, a debating society which has the slogan ‘promoting free speech and the art of debating’.

As a person in this position, the argument went, I ought to believe in absolute freedom of speech, and not try to shut down any kind of debate. To me this seemed interesting and possibly counterintuitive – I think that a person in my position has to think critically about what exactly free speech consists in within any given circumstance, and what it really means to give somebody a platform, either as an individual or in a debate. Over the course of the two-or-so years I’ve spent working at the Union, I’ve thought an awful lot about our role in facilitating debate, in running events which are controversial enough that people want to come but without being irresponsible in their subject matter, their framing or the speakers invited. As a society with limited resources – time, money, and most importantly student attendance – we have to consider carefully what debates we’re going to hold each term, who we’re going to invite to them, and how we want to run them.

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Someone I’d just met made me an origami squirrel out of the front page of the Spectator, because some people are just great

My article essentially ran along these lines. I said that there are some limits to freedom of speech, without prescribing what they are in any given instance, but listing five factors which need to be taken into account and weighed up when setting up any kind of debate: what might be said, who is speaking, where it takes place, what the subject is and how it’s framed.

This, to me, didn’t seem particularly controversial. I also suggested why it might have been that people had objections to the proposed OSFL debate, based on the criteria listed above: there were only two speakers, neither of whom had ever been in possession of a uterus; the debate was taking place in a college which is also home to people who may have had abortions and aren’t particularly comfortable with the idea of this debate going on in their home; and the framing of the motion wasn’t particularly good, assuming the existence of an ‘abortion culture’. Some people also had a problem with the debate being hosted by a pro-life society.

Again, none of this seemed particularly contentious, but the response was remarkable. If you go into the comments on the Tab article, they are overwhelmingly negative. A lot of people suggested that I didn’t want debates to go ahead if they could offend anyone, or that I was shutting down freedom of speech, or telling people what they can or can’t listen to. I don’t think I was doing any of this. Ultimately I agree with the decision not to host that particular debate in that particular context, but I don’t think any of the criteria I laid out were unfair. Every debate we hold isn’t just an expression of ideas – what is ‘just a debate’ to some people is something which has a very real impact on the lives of others. We don’t just say things in a vacuum, there are very real social contexts and impacts which we ought to take into account when we set up debates.

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Where we went wrong

I think we made a tactical error in this whole situation. When Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley published their articles, they framed what had happened as a prioritisation of ‘feelings’ over free speech, what they consider to be a fundamental right. We let them frame it this way, and the entire discussion took place on their terms, where we were the brutal oppressors of the new liberal orthodoxy, the foaming-at-the-mouth PC brigade who want to shut down debate and never let anyone be offended by anything.

It’s not about free speech. That was where we went wrong. This whole thing is not in the slightest bit about free speech – that is, the right to say things without fear of the state shutting you down. Freedom of speech is just a legal right, and when you invoke it – to paraphrase xkcd – you’re saying that the most compelling thing that can be said for your position or debate is it’s not literally illegal to say or hold it. There are two things that we are actually talking about here – or rather, which we should be talking about.

The first is what it means to privilege a particular person’s speech. When we give someone a platform, particularly at a prestigious institution like Oxford or Cambridge, we lend a degree of legitimacy to their point of view. Whilst this may not matter if, for example, you’re a high-ranking politician who is legitimised by elections they have won, it does matter for other people. There are an awful lot of people who would love to take part in the debates we hold, but we choose not to invite them to speak for numerous reasons: they’re not an expert with the requisite experience, they don’t have anything particularly interesting to say, or sometimes they just have horrifically offensive opinions which we don’t want to give the privilege of a platform to.

A number of people over the past week have recommended I ‘read J.S. Mill’s On Liberty’, in order to rectify my views. What they’re thinking of when they say this is an idealised Millian arena, in which all opinions can be presented and challenged, and the bad ones will be refuted and the good ones accepted. The problem is that this arena doesn’t exist. Sometimes the people with the ‘good’ opinions aren’t very good at expressing them. Sometimes people use tricks of rhetoric to get an audience to support their otherwise heinous views.

Moreover, debates can have greater capacity to do harm than good. First, there’s the problem of political asymmetry: if, for example, we hold a debate about the repatriation of immigrants, then there is a greater capacity for harm to occur to sometimes vulnerable immigrants if the debate goes against them than there is for any benefit to accrue if the debate goes the other way. It’s far more likely, for example, that the Daily Mail will publish an article entitled ‘Cambridge students think we should send them back’ with the former result than that they will publish anything at all with the latter. Debates like this can play into already existing biases about particular groups of people, often vulnerable people, which the audience hold, in order to make it even harder for them to achieve equal status.

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Fake info slide put up before the final of the Cambridge Intervarsity Debating Competition – they asked me if I was ok with it first, because caring about feelings is a Good Thing

The Liberal Orthodoxy

The second thing this argument should actually be about is the ‘orthodoxy’, and power, and privilege, and oppression. When Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley get to claim, from the pages of national media outlets, that they are being oppressed and their free speech squashed by the new liberal orthodoxy of students, we know something is wrong. They are the orthodoxy. What students do best is to challenge the firmly held beliefs of the generation above them, and that is exactly what we are doing. We are challenging the notion that debates happening in formal contexts have no ramifications past the end of the evening. We are challenging the claims of privileged men to have the right to speak wherever they want, whenever they want, on whatever topic they want.

Finally, we are challenging the idea that all weakness is bad. Brendan O’Neill in particular despises weakness. He is absolutely right that quite a lot of students now want the right to feel comfortable, but he is totally wrong when he says this like it’s a bad thing. Absolutely we should feel comfortable in the places we live and study, in the places we have made our homes. There are some students who are more vulnerable than others, for a whole host of reasons: they may have had emotionally traumatic experiences, they may be suffering from mental illness, they may be from backgrounds which don’t have the privilege of sending people to top universities regularly, they may just be fragile – but that’s okay. We, as students, are beginning to realise that there is more to life than just discussion. We’re beginning to realise that we don’t need to be ashamed of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We’re beginning to realise that sometimes we have to prioritise the emotional, mental and physical wellbeing of our friends and colleagues over the ability of privileged people to come in to our homes and say whatever they like.

If that makes me an enemy of free speech, so be it.