The Bath University Debating Society invited an alleged neo-Nazi called Claire Khaw to a debate on feminism. after complaints were made by students, the Society decided to retract her invitation. However, this event put into stark contrast the rift now sitting within the student body between those who believe radical views should be expressed on campus and those who do not. bathimpact contributors John Heath and Eve Alcock debate.
JH: Free speech in itself is a means of distilling some resemblance of ‘truth’. The political theorist John Stuart Mill said “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
Whilst there are obviously ideas out there that should be challenged, by simply silencing them and denying them a voice we are not creating an opportunity to deconstruct or prove wrong those ideas. By supressing such ideas we allow them to fester unchecked and unchallenged in the minds of those who hold them. Just because they are not aired in the public sphere does not mean they are not bubbling away in the background. By bringing them into the open, where they can be scrutinised and challenged, we can expose them as being false and untrue.
As students, we should relish the opportunity to challenge and rebut the arguments of radical and extremist views that we disagree with; not deny them a platform for fear that we might get offended. It is only through rigorous, open, and uncensored debate that knowledge can progress, and so we should allow them on campus.
EA: I will begin by saying that I believe free speech is important. It encourages debate and furthers knowledge, yes. But there is a line between free speech and hate speech, and the right to the former does not automatically give you the right to the latter, nor does it entitle you to a platform.
Claire Khaw, a woman who poses for photos with Nazi swastika-clad flags, who would kill her child if they were born with a disability, and who would whip ‘Slut Single Mums’ 100 times for every illegitimate child she had, quite frankly does not deserve to speak to any audience at all.
To give her a platform within the SU would only serve to give oxygen to the fire of her abusive slurs. It would show her views to be acceptable, and in turn, impact groups of students whom she so readily vilifies. When someone’s views cross the line into hate speech territory, we have a moral duty to silence that voice.
For someone’s views to be so extreme in the first place, there is little a ‘rigorous, open, and uncensored debate’ can achieve besides confirm everyone’s initial feelings towards that speaker. The damage of giving such hateful views exposure; both the attack on the victims of such hate speech and affirmation to those that might hold closeted extremist views, is too great to outweigh the benefit of the opportunity to ‘deconstruct’ their arguments.
Agreed, there is a line between hate speech and free speech, but it is wrong to say that all radical and extremist views necessarily constitute hate speech. Incenting violence to any minority group is illegal, immoral, and indefensible; thus any speaker propagating such hate speech should not be allowed onto campus. My argument is not one of allowing hate-speech on campus.
I would disagree that giving speakers a platform does give them more exposure compared to denying them one. When they get denied a platform they can create a media storm actually getting them more attention. However if they were actually to stand up and say their views it exposes how flawed their arguments are; giving them a platform takes the wind from their sails.
There is also a huge danger in allowing the university and SU to allow what constitutes “extremist/radical” views. What gives them the legitimacy to decide what ideas us students are allowed to hear?
So yes, I would not condone the invitation of speakers who practice hate speech at as defined by the law. However, it is not the role of the SU or university to decide who should and should not be allowed onto campus.
So what happens if – when researched – an external speaker’s profile indicates a history and indeed a likelihood, of hate speech. If it is not the SU or the University’s responsibility to decide who should and shouldn’t be allowed onto campus, whose responsibility is it?
I would argue that in situations where no-platform decisions are made, it is when a speaker’s radical or extremist views are based in aggression and violence. Moreover, I would argue it is rare to have those views without this basis. In the same way that violence and aggression are unacceptable in any other sphere of the SU or University, why should exceptions be made for external speakers with the power to influence their audiences?
The argument for ‘free speech’ assumes that everyone’s voice in society is equally heard. This is not the case. For example, for a white, middle class, straight privileged male, there is no issue in inviting a an external speaker with homophobic views for ‘debate’ in order to ‘expose their flawed arguments’. But the reality is that LGBT+ voices in society are not listened to as much as white middle class straight privileged males. LGBT+ students may feel unsafe or attacked by such a speaker, and moreover, may feel like their SU has endorsed the speaker by giving them a platform.
The no-platform policy is not there to restrict free speech; rather it is there to amplify the voice of those whose views are not listened to as much in society. It is there, to balance the books.
It is the state’s role to decide what constitutes ‘hate speech’ and if criminal proceedings have been taken against someone for committing hate speech they should not be allowed onto campus, it should be decided by criminality not controversy.
The potency of a speakers ‘aggression and violence’ depends on the context. In the vacuum of academic debate there are little real world consequences compared to if someone was airing violent/aggressive views in the streets.
It is questionable if the SU really has the capacity to make that value judgment fairly, and to justly draw the line between those inciting hate speech and those who are just controversial. Thus it should be left to the state to decide what hate speech really is.
Agreed, some voices are heard more than others in public discourse, but gagging one side does not amplifying the other. Instead you need to ensure that the relevant voices are heard equally in a debate. And that is the point of a debating; it is a leveler, a controlled space where both sides get their say.
To really ‘balance the books’ you need have both sides of an argument there. No platforming the side you disagree with just creates echo chamber reverberating the views you already agree with. This is no way for knowledge or understanding to progress.
Ginzburg said “censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself.” We must be confident in ourselves, show conviction in our views, and embrace the controversy of open debate.
You do indeed need to ensure that the relevant voices are heard equally in a debate
. But if you have a marginalised voice on one side of the debate
, and a voice typically elevated by society on the other side, by giving them the same opportunity of a platform, the elevated voice remains above the marginalised.
At the end of the day, no-platform policies are there to prevent harmful speakers from gaining support. If we were able to tackle and dispel the views of such speakers through logical debate, we wouldn’t still have racist and fascist views permeating society.
You can call them ‘snowflakes’ or ‘easily offended’, but the SU has a duty to ensure its students feel safe and respected, especially those in marginalised groups. The no-platform policy is a way of lifting those groups up, letting them know that we value them, and that we do not endorse those whose views attack and slate their identities.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, but this does not entitle them to a platform in an institution whose duty it is to ensure the feeling of safety amongst its students.