Wednesday, 22 June 2016

No Platforming

The basic idea of No Platforming is to prevent/campaign against/end the provision of a platform by a person/group/organisation/institution to views which are deemed inappropriate -- typically because they are offensive or degrading. When this crosses the line into dangerous we will typically find laws require no platforms (e.g. inciting riots). Or, alternatively, danger exists on the philosophical plane, at least in the representation of no platform arguments written by the, hmm, correspondents of Minding the Campus. Specifically, they talk about things like de-inviting: where the invitations to speakers are withdrawn.

Now, at first glance you possibly have one of two reactions to this. One, you agree with Minding the Campus' apparent view (this post was loosely inspired by a scan of this article so do not take my interpretation as gospel: there is no excuse for doing so) that No Platforming is terrible and bad. Two, you agree with the concept of de-inviting. If these views describe you, then you are just flat out wrong. It doesn't matter which response because neither of these are right. To see why, we need to go back to the rationale of No Platforming.

Very simply, the rationale is that if you provide someone with a platform you do two things. Firstly, you allow their bad views to air and implicitly acknowledge them as legitimate. You see how this works if we had, say, some newsreader who regularly took the opportunity to advocate for slavery or suggest that "race" and intelligence are related. The first view is morally bankrupt (and economically illiterate). The second view is straight out lies. Secondly, by providing a platform you implicitly say "We're okay with these views", which in the context of a university is interesting because it also implicitly means that the students are okay with these views. This is slightly different to legitimacy. After all, I believe that partial privatisation of state owned enterprises is a legitimate view. However, I think that it is a morally bankrupt and economically illiterate view so I am clearly not okay with it. Maybe there are better words that I could use to describe this but if I knew them, I probably wouldn't be writing a blog. Of course, this begs the question: what the bloody hell is a platform anyway?

It is important to understand that providing a platform is more than just giving someone the space to state their views. If you give someone a platform, you give them a position to talk with connotations of power. Consider the metaphor. If you have a platform, you are raised above others. Thus, someone with a platform has implicit backing and necessarily is more than just one more voice among many in the forum. Providing a platform also relates to the way that provider relates to the content of the speaker. This is a bit like the difference between having a racist character in your novel and having a racist character in your novel where it is clear that your novel doesn't provide any (moral) commentary on the character. It is also a bit like the difference between quoting a slavemonger advocating for slavery in order to demonstrate why slavery is wrong and doing this in order to advocate for slavery. Platforms are all about normalising a particular viewpoint.

When you invite a speaker to give a talk, do you provide them with a platform? Well, actually, you don't. A speaker is an event. It's not a part of the everyday way of doing things. The audience and people reading about the talk understand that this is true (and if they don't, they necessarily cannot produce valid commentary on the practice). However, we can alter this base context. If we're not talking about a university situation, then it is unreasonable to suppose that the audience is meant to critically listen. If am the host of a business conference, and I trot out my pro-slavery speaker, it is more about providing someone interesting than something intriguing. This is more platform-esque. If I am a school and I invite this speaker along, then it is extremely problematic because we don't expect the pupils to be able to contextualise this talk properly. If I bring this speaker along to the bowling club's AGM for a bit of variety then we have definitely got a platform. Likewise, if you invite the same speaker in every year, then things are different. Suddenly, this is normalised and we're showing a routine impression of "this speaker's views are acceptable". But, in general, you have to remember that talks are all about generating conversation and questions. Quite often the intent is that you give the speaker an opportunity to talk and then afterwards, maybe with cocktails or over dinner, the speaker is just another person there.

When you consider this discussion, it is immediately apparent that inviting speakers to a debate or a panel is never equivalent to raising a platform as the entire point is that the views that any individual speaker brings are to be contrasted (minimum in a panel). confronted (typical of a panel) or, even, outright opposed (minimum in a debate). Panels and debates contextualise necessarily the content as part of a discourse. What you as an organiser implicitly acknowledge is the legitimacy of the discourse. However, you can also frame the context further. If a debating society chooses to have topics like "This house would use a time machine to kill Hitler" then having a moot like "This house would reinstate slavery" is put in an entirely different context to a society whose moots are more along the lines of "This house believes that globalisation leads stark inequalities". The former society is about providing some sort of contestable topic whereas the latter offers Debates. It's like the difference between the Bill and Ben Party and ACT.

Now, this is a fairly complex issue and it is completely unfair of me to not actually bother properly reading the inspiring source material. However, what I am more interested in doing (rather than commenting on the article's views) is outlining the difference between a platform and allowing certain views to be expressed. Platforms really are problematic when the views that are expressed are socially unacceptable. How that is determined is, of course, another question entirely. Platforms really aren't problematic when the logic you use has a false premise. That is, if you say something is a platform but  it doesn't actually share the characteristics that make platforms problematic you work from a false premise. As always, please, please comment.

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