Is No Platforming A Good Policy For Universities?
February 25, 2017 Brainstorm Special Episode #1
So, this is kind of just an extra episode. This was previously put out on the Wayward Atheists podcast feed on Spreaker.com but they kindly provided the audio so that I could share it with our subscribers in case anyone doesn't listen to both shows. If you don't, then I highly recommend you check theirs out.
I was online discussing some of the typical arguments against the "far" left and one of those arguments is in regards to no-platforming, particularly at universities. During the discussion on Facebook, Edward Smith challenged me to a debate to defend my stance that no-platforming is well within the rights of a school to do. This is that debate.
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The following text is my written opening statement.
First off I want to say that this is intended as a philosophic argument for the ethics of no platforming as I see them. I don’t have the legal expertise to say if something is actually legal or not so when I am making my arguments I’m not arguing that something is or is not the law. One could say that I’m arguing for what I think the law should say or should allow for regarding universities, or really any venue, regarding disinviting speakers.
I view this as an economic issue of cost versus benefit. First, if we grant that a university is a self-governing institution with autonomy over who can access its speaking venues and when, then we have to look at the reasons that a venue holder may or may not choose to disinvite a speaker.
One might be tempted to ask the question, can the people in charge of the university (or venue) be trusted to give all speech an equal opportunity to be heard? But I think this is missing the way in which a business like a university has to treat things, and make no mistake a university is a business. Its customers are the students and the product it sells is education, but that education has to be something that the students want. If a speaker is too controversial then students might protest, which is another way of expressing the free speech that we are looking at. They might petition the school to uninvite the speaker. They may threaten to leave the school and they may contact donors who may also threaten to pull their donations from the school. All of these consequences apply similarly to other venues. They may lose ticket sales, they may have donations pulled, they may have groups who are involved in the planning decide not to be involved. There are always possible consequences when deciding if a speaker should be given a platform or not.
These calculations aren’t one sided either, there might be donors who see uninviting a speaker as a bad move by a school and as a result will threaten to pull their donations, similar actions can be taken by the students who wish to have a particular speaker on campus and the university (or venue holder) will have to weigh the potential costs versus the potential benefits.
Also factored into the cost benefit analysis will have to be potential reimbursement for things like travel, hotels, food or any other costs incurred by the speaker or the group that paid the speaker.
So, when a university takes into account all the variables, then I think that it’s fair to say that they have done the appropriate work necessary to decide for themselves whether to disinvite a speaker or not.
Some people think that none of that matters. A school is different and should be a marketplace of ideas and bad ideas should get a chance to be heard just like good ideas. I think this too is mistaken. Some ideas are factually incorrect and allowing them to spread actually increases the damage they cause to society. This raises the question of who gets to decide what ideas are bad and which are good. This can have a couple of answers. First, the marketplace of ideas has already had its say, via the internet, other venue holders giving said speaker a platform, or some other form of media. This is how students know who the people coming to speak at their schools are and as a result they express their own free speech through protests and petitions.
None of this should be viewed as advocating violence, or property damage. It’s simply one person or group expressing their free speech in response to another person or group expressing theirs.
Ultimately this seems to come down to pitting one view of free speech against another. Is Milo Yiannopolous’s free speech more valuable than the school or venue holder’s freedom to choose who uses their platform? I don’t think so.
School’s have an easy out, legally so far as I can tell. I recently listened to a show with a legal expert on and his take was that a school gets to decide who uses their venue and they can give nearly any reason for rejecting or disinviting someone so long as that reason isn’t that they want to reject a set of ideas. They can say, that a particular speaker isn’t up to the educational standards of the school, just as an example.
This seems a bit like a loophole but the underlying point is that a school has some criteria upon which they can base approval or rejection of a speaker and that this criterion falls well within even the most absolutist versions of free speech. And of course, to just broaden this a bit to include non university venues; a private venue doesn’t even have to have that strict of a set of rules. I can simply not have you speak at my conference because I don’t like you and I don’t have to give you a platform.
Next I want to talk about why students might protest against speakers.
In his recent book, From Bacteria to Bach, Daniel Dennett goes through some explanation of language as memes and Richard Dawkins has used memes as a method of explaining the spread of religion. I think that the memes that someone like a Milo or a Richard Spencer spread can take hold in people’s minds even if they start out as just a bad idea among a small group. The more these ideas are repeated, the further they spread and the more they take hold. Racism, sexism or bigotry in general seem to be memes that spread when given a larger platform. That’s not so say that they will go away if they have to make their own platforms, some examples would include Brietbart, The Blaze, and Infowars but as we learned in the last US election, the more attention something gets the further that meme can spread. The meme of Donald Trump as president was so pervasive and on every news station and that had a genuine impact on the outcome of the election.
It seems fair to say that one can oppose the idea of giving a meme a platform from which to spread without actively censoring the meme itself. Students protesting against someone they disagree with can result in that person spreading that meme being forced to do so through a less efficient means. Which is something I can agree with as someone who actively pushes back against pseudoscience and misinformation as much as I can.
I guess my point here is that not giving one a platform doesn’t censor them, and that students or customers who want their venue holder or university to avoid having certain speakers have the freedom to express that, and finally that a venue holder or university has the right or freedom to choose who they grant a platform to or not.
I hope you enjoy the debate and it helps someone think a bit deeper about the side they don't agree with. Feedback is always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for listening.
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