So the latest victim of no-platforming is none other than veteran civil and gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, proving that no one is sufficiently right-on not to fall foul of the current wave of student Stalinism, should it so happen that someone mutters ‘I saw Goody Proctor with the devil’ about them.
But this latest episode has left me reflecting that none other than Richard Dawkins has long had a policy of not debating with creationists. Doing so, he reasons, lends weight and credibility to their arguments and allows them to be seen as ‘putting the other side’ for an argument which has no other side. Can we imagine Stephen Hawking debating the existence of gravitational waves with someone who believed that the Earth was flat? Or Dame Kelly Holmes discussing the benefits of participating in sport with a lardass couch potato?
The students concerned are apt to say that it is not necessary to hear someone speak to know that their views are not worth hearing, and that quite apart from the danger of giving oxygen to their noxious beliefs, it is simply a waste of time to have to listen to them being expressed. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for this. If the topic of debate is a nuanced question of, say, the best way to enable participation in higher education among the immigrant community, neither the speakers nor the floor want to have to listen to some far-right ape saying that they should go back to where they came from, just as Dawkins doesn’t want to spend fifteen minutes explaining how the eye evolved only to be told that it doesn’t say that in the Bible so he must be wrong.
But no-platforming is such an extreme response that it must surely be used with restraint, and, I should have thought, with reasons. No one would have been in any doubt of the reasons why Dawkins might not appear on the same platform with them. The argument about whether what was written by Bronze Age barbarians some three thousand years ago trumps the theories and discoveries of modern science was not one that had any value left as far as he was concerned, and the vast majority of those wanting to hear him speak would surely have preferred he deal with more contentious, or at least more interesting, matters. In any case, Dawkins is a sought-after speaker with established credentials, and is entitled to pick and choose with whom he debates. By contrast, Fran Cowling, though they* may doubtless have many respectable qualities in being elected Officer of the National Union of Students, ought perhaps to be prepared to slum it talking to someone of Tatchell’s track record, especially since many of those present may well have been keen to hear his thoughts. He was, after all, the Keynote Speaker.
What is not clear in this case is how one person throwing their toys out of the pram can cause the whole event to be cancelled. (See POSTSCRIPT ) Why isn’t someone saying ‘Sure Fran, we’re sorry you feel that way. I’m sure there will be other opportunities for your voice to be heard. But let’s face it – it’s Peter Tatchell.’ And how does it look at the Tatchell end?
‘Hey Pete, can you come and speak to the LGBTQi Staff Network on the 15th? We’re talking about Re-radicalising Queers. We’d love you to be the Keynote Speaker!’
‘Yeah, Re-radicalising Queers is a topic I know a lot about, Clive, so that will be just fine. 15th it is.’
‘Hey Pete? Hey look, I’m really sorry, but something’s come up about that whole Re-radicalising thing. You see there’s this person who doesn’t like some letter that you put your name to in the Guardian, and we’re a bit worried that this might trigger some trauma in them, so she’s refusing to speak on the same platform as you. Sorry and all.’
‘Well, I’m sorry too. I’m sure she had some interesting things to say…’
‘Oh, we’ll still hear from her. You’re the one who’s uninvited.’
‘But I’m Peter Tatchell’
‘Yeah. That’s sort of the whole problem.’
It would probably be cruel (not to mention anti-feminist, anti-women, anti-trans, privileged and white**) of me to suggest that it’s just possible that no one on the planet would ever have heard of Fran Cowling, far less would she have got her name in the Daily Telegraph, had it not been for her incontinent burst of Tatchell hating. Even if that were not her explicit motive, the whiff of self-regarding pomposity suffuses this issue. Surely there’s a friendless character in children’s literature who devises a great and lavish party purely for the satisfaction of not inviting anyone to it. If there isn’t, there should be. For this is what seems to be happening to campus debate. It isn’t happening. It is as if students have said ‘Let’s have a debate about X, Y and Z and exclude anyone who disagrees with our opinion about it.’
But perhaps this isn’t new. The Socialist Worker Party used to host debates whose titles were forgone conclusions. ‘Has Britain become a Police State?’ was one I attended, curious to know what grounds were being used to suggest so. Surprisingly, there wasn’t anyone speaking against the motion. For that matter, the event at which Tatchell was to speak, subtitled ‘Should we tow [sic] the line or cause a stir’, probably wasn’t about to conclude that the best way of re-radicalising queers was to toe the line, and that causing a stir was definitely not the way to go, and more to the point, Tatchell was almost certain to have been pro-stir.
So far as can be ascertained from Fran’s lack of response to the request for reasons, one of her main gripes is that Peter put his name to a letter to the Guardian deploring the tactic of no-platforming when used against anyone but ‘self-proclaimed fascists’ and Holocausts-deniers. In fact, according to the Daily Telegraph, she thinks the letter ‘support[s] the incitement of violence against transgender people.’ Do please read the letter and make your own mind up about whether this might be true, or whether Fran might not be just using words to mean stuff that they don’t actually mean.
There, perhaps, is the irony. Fran felt threatened not by Peter’s arguments, but his opinion on the strategy of no-argument. Rather than argue against him on the matter, she simply used what it was that he didn’t like.
There used to be a cartoon called The Perishers, a pale British imitation of Peanuts. In one long-running gag, Maisie, the self-important girl who had to win at everything attached a toilet plunger to a broom and called it her Doomsday Death Ray (or something like that). She would then enter Marlon and Wellington’s games of soldiers and say ‘Zzzzap! The game’s over’; her Death Ray defeated everyone and everything without strategy, intelligence or fun.
No-platform is the Death Ray. People will surely just take their toys somewhere else.
*I’m going to avoid ascribing a gender to them. But not an agenda. Haha.
** I am actually none of the first three, in my opinion, which is the only one that matters. The last two I acknowledge mine. But I’ll bet Fran has them too.