Late Autumn, 2008. The proposed policy of ‘No Platform’ is rejected by Leeds University’s students at a referendum. The defeated Union officers and members involved in supporting it however, have struck back.
In November of last year, a motion eerily similar to No Platform was narrowly passed despite a passionate opposition campaign, of which I was a prominent component. The motion offered the following: a complaints group was to be internally appointed by the Student Executive. Its job? After a phoney discussion, speakers invited to the University by one of its Societies would be rejected if they had violated – or could be prosecuted under – the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, or section 74 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act; or if undertaking a sentence relevant to hate speech, or if still undergoing punishment. Note that the authors of the motion separated “punishment” from “sentence” and gave no definition of the former: thus in a circular, self-sustaining rhythm the Union itself can be the arbiter of punishment by taking the decision to disallow a speaker a platform.
Officially deployed under the Goebbelian title of ‘Safe Space for Students’, immediately two implicit assumptions arose. One, that it was possible to ensure complete safety for all students and two, that anybody wishing to uphold the most basic tenets of a free society must be demanding an ‘unsafe space’. Revealingly, no definition of ‘safety’ was given; did it mean protection from hearing nasty opinions from shady politicians? Or perhaps never to be in an environment where violence is possible? What high standards the Union sets itself!
Our campaign’s position was summarised by an aphorism from Rosa Luxemburg: freedom of speech is the freedom for those who think differently. Condemning Nick Griffin’s views is not based upon the same principle that justifies denying them a platform or making them a criminal offence. As for the total non-distinction between a platform and speech: the reasons people offer for denying the former always seem to mirror perfectly the ones given to outlaw the latter.
Many of us took a road less travelled. By questioning the plausibility of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, we deemed anything based upon it to be flawed. Note that it is not a crime to hate an individual, but to ask someone else to join in hatred is. How does one prove conclusively that hatred would be formed on religious or racial grounds anyway? Though race is scientifically non-existent the nastiness of contempt based on skin colour is self-evident: the same does not apply to religion or religious belief. Holy texts would not be printable were the Act truly upheld. Browse a daily newspaper and one instantly observes that religious beliefs are innately and unalterably divisive, and yet the Act demands the maximum respect and the highest protection. The law here is devoid of sense: as Marx put it, the criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism. A vague and illiberal law that is open to such wide interpretation from a manipulative student body cries out for firm opposition.
To the ‘safety’ myth. If certain groups were as dangerous as ‘No Platformers’ would have us believe, then to render the University ‘unsafe’ it seems no invitation would be necessary. University societies have previously organised controversial events without endangering students, the Executive knows this full well. Oh and democracy. It cannot function on the basis that there is no potentiality of speeches, movements or ideas rousing primal emotions in people. A small sacrifice of safety – at least, not guaranteeing it totally – is worth taking if our society is not to become a static, dull, intellectual wasteland.
A crucial axiom of theirs is that by debating, let’s say the B.N.P., we only succeed in ‘legitimising’ the scholarly suppositions of Nick Griffin. Nobody has given a coherent definition of ‘legitimacy’ when it is applied to views. If it is legally founded it is flatly false, so what could it mean? Possibly it is the worry of making Nick Griffin’s opinionsacceptable; debating racism and ahistorical theories is not difficult even for ‘No Platformers’, public ridicule would ensue. More of a following would be gained through covert individual proselytising: Mr Griffin is unlikely to invite Richard J. Evans (trouncer of David Irving’s works) to dispute the Third Reich’s policy on minorities. Clog up Mr Griffin’s timetable with public forums: as is clear, he does not refuse them.
Let’s grant the legitimacy point. Yet why would it follow that, after ascribing illegitimacy to an opinion, it can thus be censored and even criminalised? I can’t evade Orwell here: I may make the (in)famous mistake of 2+2 = 5, surely constituting ‘illegitimate’ mathematics, but is that alone a reason to ban bad calculations from public discourse? The Executive cannot assume the right to govern ‘legitimate viewpoints’ on behalf of thousands of individuals. If one is to talk of legitimacy, is there any detected in a small, unelected body adjudicating acceptable opinions for 30,000 students?
Ill-formed arguments and petulant faux-radical rage dominate United Against Fascism (U.A.F.) members. Where did the violence, intimidation and hatred come from in the Oxford Union debate with Mr Griffin and Mr Irving? The U.A.F. of course. They bellowed “kill Tryll” (Luke Tryll being then the O.U.’s president) as they tried to forcibly prevent a democratically-mandated public debate. What a low opinion of the public the U.A.F. must possess, laughable when they claim to be bastions of upholding the democratic process. Indeed, Griffin and Irving apparently bombed through the method most alien to No Platformers – logic. By giving ‘left-wing’ legitimacy to censorship, organisations like the U.A.F. paradoxically yank politics rightwards; not only this, they are evidently incapable of defeating the small far-right parties whose influence they like to exaggerate; through their increased numbers they become more dangerous.
Often naming themselves Trotskyists, they ignore one of Trotsky’s virtues: skill in argumentation and reasoning. Terms like ‘fascist’ and ‘Nazi’ decorate the pages of energetic leaflets, distributed by students equipped with the political education of those they despise. On occasions when the B.N.P are discussed, Nazi analogies fill the hall and dominate the proceedings. With poor elocution and limited knowledge of history, students declare Mr Griffin akin to Hitler both in practice and ideologically. You can see the trap already: point out inaccuracies, irrationality, sheer ignorance and you are soft on the B.N.P. or the Nazis – something which is difficult for reasons of chronology. ‘No Platformers’ cannot decide if it is 2010 or Berlin in the closing stages of the Weimar Republic. I was once informed by a student harnessed with the powers of telepathic retrospection that Hitler rose to power because he was permitted platforms.
In Durham earlier this year, the N.U.S. allowed two of its leading officers (both U.A.F. members) to send a threatening letter to the Durham Union Society for their invitations sent out to Andrew Brons M.E.P. and Chris Beverley. Claiming that coach-loads of U.A.F. would be sent to Durham, the authors declared that should violence occur, responsibility rested with the Durham Union Society. An urgent matter of debate perhaps: are U.A.F. members of a sound enough mind to be tried in a Criminal Court? Leaving aside the intimidation from the supposedly representative N.U.S., the issue was absurd for mere structural reasons: the Durham Union Society is not a member of the N.U.S., it isn’t even a member of the Durham Union, which itself recently disaffiliated from the organisation in justified protest.
Many students realise the danger of N.U.S. officers abusing their position by employing it as a political platform, many of us now pose the following question: who poses the greatest threat to democracy on our campuses (and generally), is it an unlettered bunch of thugs whose leader Nick Griffin fails to express himself on Question Time; or a popular and populist organisation that actively tries to stop debates from taking place in areas over which it has no jurisdiction? Worse still, they do so under the guise of actually aiding the democratic means – watch on Youtube its president Wes Streeting claim in Durham, to rapturous, ridiculing laughter, that a main tenet of the N.U.S. is to uphold freedom of speech. Utter words such as safety, protection, representation and others and one may pass whichever illiberal policy one wishes to.
W.H. Auden, on watching the brutal Communist backlash against the brave liberalising Czechoslovakians, penned a powerful and short poem entitled simply “August 1968”:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
Intrinsically absurd and obscene ideologies can be refuted with a swift blow of unfiltered reason, argument and dialogue. As is clear, there is more than one group that embodies Auden’s dumb Ogre.