Ignore the excuses – Peter Tatchell has been no-platformed
We've entered into a depressing cycle of free speech offence. First, someone is no-platformed, then there is a mainstream political backlash, then the defenders of safe spaces come out and tease apart the tiny holes in the free speech argument.
I honestly thought when the news broke of Peter Tatchell's troubles at a Canterbury Christ Church debate tonight that many defenders of safe spaces would hesitate. Here was a man with impeccable campaigning credentials. For decades he fought for equality and free speech – being mocked by the press, subjected to homophobic slurs by his political opponents, and arrested by the police. For anyone to call him racist or transphobic is a disgrace to themselves and the English language. Surely this would be the moment people stood back and thought: OK, this culture has clearly gone too far. But instead, the usual mealy-mouthed excuses are brought up.
They say this is not an example of no-platforming. Fran Cowling, the National Union of Students (NUS) representative for LGBT issues, merely said she wouldn’t share a platform, not that he should be banned from speaking. So she is only silencing herself. But this is to fundamentally misunderstand the hate-mob strategy the safe spaces movement uses to silence its opponents.
The Cowling letter brands Tatchell a racist and a transphobe. It does an injustice to his record and to the intellect of the reader to really go into these allegations, but it is required to demonstrate the point.
The evidence that has been offered on the latter charge is that Tatchell signed an open letter criticising those trying to prevent feminist Germaine Greer giving a speech.
This is how the reasoning works: Greer is a transphobe whose rhetoric against the community leads to violence against them. Therefore the demand that she be allowed to express her views is itself transphobic and encourages violence. A similar logic is found in demands that campaigners to criminalise sex work are banned from speaking: their policy would put sex workers in greater risk and it is therefore a form of violence against women. And there is a similar logic to the arguments of those who want to ban supporters of sex workers from speaking: they say sex work and pornography leads to violence against women and therefore anyone supporting them is indirectly causing violence against women. It is a weird imaginary cycle of opinion, phobia, hate speech and violence.
On the racism charge, Cowling writes: "I have witnessed first hand Peter using racist language, without apology at events and he also harassed our NUS black students officer (a black Muslim woman) on social media last year when the right wing press and EDL accused her of supporting ISIS – which is not true."
These accusations are the tried and true system of shutting up political opponents in the world of identity politics. Anyone making the case for free speech or expressing an opinion contrary to those of the censors is subject to an intense, widespread and vitriolic attack. They are branded racists, transphobes, bigots, and sexists. They are told they are unsafe to women or ethnic minorities.
This has two effects: the first is libellous, or rather it would be if the subjects of these hate attacks had the money to pursue it. For many of them, who work in these areas politically and socially, it significantly damages their standing among people they spend time with and can cause incredible damage to their careers. The second is emotional: no normal person can bear the abuse, which often goes on for days on Twitter. They learn to shut up, to stop expressing themselves, to back away. They are silenced by the angry mob.
Either way, the end result is the same as no-platforming. It doesn’t matter that Cowling's letter is only about herself. By trying to turn Tatchell into a symbol of racism and transphobia she is telling anyone sympathetic with those campaigns not to share a platform with him either. She's saying he shouldn't be allowed to speak, but only she has the moral standing to do something about it.
Even when unions ban a speaker, free speech campaigners are told that this is not technically an example of no-platforming. All that's happened is that a private organisation – in this case a student union or society – has 'disinvited' them. It is a borderline Stalinist use of language. It’s the political equivalent of a husband who says he didn't really cheat because it was only kissing.
When a student union or debating society say they want to disinvite someone, the effect is precisely the same as if they were no-platformed. They were going to speak and now they cannot speak. The students who were going to hear their opinion now cannot hear their opinion. The word 'disinvite' is a euphemism for 'ban'. The end result is identical.
The reason the term no-platforming is being used outside of its strict technical definition is because new and slightly more subtle methods are being used to limit freedom of speech and the word has grown to encompass them. That is a useful use of language, because it retains the strength of the original term for what are, ultimately, strong actions. That should surely be recognised whichever side of the debate you're on.
The purpose of the censorship movement is to eliminate critical views by silencing them. They do it in many ways – from libellous slurs, to Twitter storms, to disinvitations, to no-platforming motions at a conference. But it always has the same aim: to shut that person up. We shouldn't be making excuses for them or arguing over technical definitions. We should be taking a hard stand against this new puritanism and offering our solidarity to everyone it affects.
Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.