Image description: Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist and executive chairman of Breitbart News
In the wake of the recent anti-fascism protests outside the Oxford Union in response to the invitation extended to Katie Hopkins to speak, the topic on the validity of the use of ‘no-platforming’ has come to the forefront of political discourse. Proponents of the concept vehemently oppose providing any airtime to any figure who is deemed to spout fascist tropes, whereas opponents of ‘no-platforming’ regard it as an attempt at eroding free speech.
The problem that I see with both sides of the argument is that they lack nuance. This seems to be a symptom of the current political climate, with reductionist arguments being used to portray complex issues. In this case, the nuance lies within the role played by institutions such as the Oxford Union. These institutions are platforms which facilitate the widespread dissemination of information by amplifying the voices of invited speakers. An effect of this is that the information that they provide is then legitimised in the wider public space, regardless of the factual validity of their statements. As such, there is a very real danger of false information spreading throughout the population. This can be particularly divisive when the debate concerns sensitive groups such as refugees and ethnic or religious minorities. Therefore, speaking platforms such as the Oxford Union should be duty-bound to vet all the speakers who they invite.
Of course, there is no perfect way to do this. However, I suggest that the most effective method of doing so is to only invite speakers who have proven expertise in the area which is the subject of the debate. In theory, this should safeguard against the threat of the spread of ‘fake news’ from these platforms. As such, I fully support the idea of no-platforming speakers such as Katie Hopkins. Ms. Hopkins has a history of being outspoken on issues such as migration and refugees, despite having no experience in the research of either field. This has led her to make multiple inflammatory comments, such as claiming that there are large ‘swathes’ of Britain which are deemed to be ‘no-go zones’ due to the perceived high population of Muslims within these areas. Unsurprisingly, she could not name a single area which exemplifies this. By no-platforming her, we, as a society, are able to stem the flow of such harmful, false rhetoric.
Speaking platforms such as the Oxford Union should be duty-bound to vet all the speakers who they invite.
Some argue that no-platforming does not work as it inadvertently strengthens the voice of the person subjected to this. However, there is proof on the contrary. Milo Yiannopoulos, a British technology journalist turned right-wing ‘political commentator’, was the source of multiple controversial comments, much like Ms. Hopkins. Similarly to Hopkins, his claims were often inflammatory and outright lies. One such case of this is when he claimed that transgenderism is a ‘mental disorder’ and that transgender people are ‘vastly disproportionately involved in sex crimes’. Transgenderism was declassified as a mental disorder in 2012 by the American Psychiatric Association, whereas there have been zero reported cases of a transgender individual involved in a bathroom assault in the United States. In response to Mr. Yiannopoulos spouting such falsities, he was blacklisted by all major media outlets. As a result, it was reported at the end of 2018 that he was in at least $2 million of debt. Thus, this shows that no-platforming, if used correctly, can promote the voices of the experts while also dismantling the voices of those who seek to sow discord within our community.
However, the political developments which have occurred in the western world in the last five years have created a substantial grey area in determining who should be provided with a platform to speak. This is because we have seen deplorable people who should not be given a platform being propelled into powerful government positions. A prime example of this is Steve Bannon, who switched from his role as the executive chairman of Breitbart News to the White House Chief Strategist in the Trump administration. Under his leadership, he declared that Breitbart would be ‘the platform for the alt-right’ and this was reflected in a multitude of articles which were published under his leadership, including one which blamed Muslim immigrants for crime in Europe, one which blamed Mexican immigrants for crime in the US, and one which endorsed the ‘Birther’ movement against Barack Obama. Under normal circumstances, Bannon should not be invited to speak at platforms such as the Oxford Union as it is clear that he is intent on spreading false information. However, his role as a crucial cog in the most powerful government in the world makes one question whether he should be no-platformed. In debates which revolve around politics, he should be considered as an expert due to his professional experience in the field. In this case, rather than silencing him, it would be more appropriate to give him a platform on the condition that the moderator fact-checks his statements live and corrects any misinformation as soon as possible.
No-platforming is a powerful tool in the fight against ‘fake news’ and should be used in the correct way; that is, against potential speakers who are not experts in the field which is being debated. Even with the uncertainty provided by the mainstreaming of the alt-right, it is a tool which can lead to a better-informed population and a more efficient democracy. Therefore, platforms such as the Oxford Union have a duty to use it when appropriate.
Image credit: Gage Skidmore