Esther Giles, who was due to appear at last weekend’s Labour Lockout event but was no-platformed, spoke today at Labour Against the Witchhunt’s Building the Campaign for Free Speech event. This is the text of her speech:
No-Platforming and the so-called Left: The Supposed “Right of Intolerance”
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
This quote, wrongly attributed to Voltaire, was actually written by (would you believe it) a woman, Beatrice Evelyn Hall in a book published in 1906 which she wrote about Voltaire. And who, of course wrote under a pseudonym because she was a woman. And, yes, I have met people who will not read anything written by a woman.
Here’s something that Voltaire did write once, in his 1763 Treatise on Toleration:
“The supposed right of intolerance is absurd and barbaric. It is the right of the tiger; nay, it is far worse, for tigers do but tear in order to have food, while we rend each other for paragraphs.”
I am going to talk to you about:
* My recent no-platforming experience and the fall-out;
* Why we must fight for free speech and thought; and
* The new no-platforming
No-Platforming: the Antithesis of Free Speech
Last Sunday evening there was an event about democracy and free speech. This event was put on in defence of CLP officers suspended for disobeying the diktats of Labour’s General Secretary by allowing members to debate and/or vote on topics he had forbidden. The organisers of this event no-platformed someone (me) because someone had lobbied one or more of the speakers. One of the speakers (who is a prospective candidate for Mayor of Liverpool) told the organisers that they would withdraw unless I was removed from the platform. The organisers feared that her withdrawal would spark further speakers pulling out and asked me to withdraw for fear of the whole event collapsing. I pulled out. The event went ahead using a webinar with the chat disabled. The organising group knew that their decision to no-platform one of the advertised speakers would be a controversial one and seen as hypocritical, but they felt either that the event was more important than the principle (of free speech), or that what I was accused of genuinely made me a “persona non grata”. I think that the organising committee was divided on the issue. It has certainly, in the fall-out, revealed deep rifts in groups and campaigns. Importantly, when this happens to you, you will find out how people and groups respond to the white-hot flame of the witchhunt. Some melt away like snowflakes. Some swivel round and stand by the side of the witch-hunters. Some run for shelter, and some stand in the flames by your side (including people you have never met before) and become an even more valuable gold.
I want to put this no-platforming in the context of free speech, and explore what no-platforming has now become.
Why Free Speech?
What does free speech do? It shines a light on bad arguments and hate, rather than letting it fester in dark corners- for example, arguably, the BNP collapsed following Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time in 2009. Free speech allows debate when there is disagreement about ideas and ideologies. It helps us to find the truth by dialectic. It promotes trust, honesty and respect where differing points of view are listened to. It requires confidence to challenge and that the challenge is respectful. It requires time to think and debate.
That’s why, in the Labour Party (for those of us who still have meetings or can go to them), we have the process of motions submitted in good time, and time allotted for debate in a comradely fashion
The ability to debate competing viewpoints is one of the foundations of democratic society. If dissent is seen as offence, and is then elevated to hate speech, the consequences for democracy are alarming- and that is what I think we are seeing now.
What are the limits on free speech? It should not (in my view) promote acts of violence. If someone says something a reasonable person would believe to be “something so appalling that it should not be said”, they should be called out. We should refuse and reject the rhetoric of violence.
Yesterday, somebody who has been posting smears against me on social media for the past two years justified their smearing (and my no-platforming) by saying: “You are standing with people who really have been unfairly smeared and are completely innocent of all accusations”. This person was saying that they were the arbiter of free speech and that anyone with whom they did not agree should be silenced.
The New No-Platforming
“No-platforming” used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists – the National Front or the EDL – and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is particularly being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists. The feminists who hold these views (many second wave feminists and other sisters and brothers) have never advocated or engaged in violence against any group of people. But they are called transphobes and whorephobes: it is argued that the mere presence of anyone said to hold those views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety. And so comrades are prevented from speaking by the opinions of the ideological thugs (in my case it seems to have been the LGBT+ group, though I cannot be sure). And we know, of course, that critics of Israel suffer the same fate. As someone said to me this week “attacks on free speech and thought about Israel come from without, but the gender debate results in the left eating itself.”
This new no-platforming approach results in people sometimes being disgraced and defamed for the rest of their lives for one comment or incident taken out of context- or even for just having been accused of something. Universities (like the Labour Party) appear to be a mecca for no-platformers – which doesn’t augur well for the future if we don’t address it now. The social justice warriors in today’s universities seem to wage war to out-compete each other in their successes in no-platforming people. There is a growing list of people who have been “no-platformed” and we are hearing about some of them today – including Ken Loach this week. The Union of Jewish Students and the Board of Deputies called for his no-platforming because he had repeatedly been accused of, and been an apologist for antisemitism. Did you see what they did there? They said he should be no-platformed because he had been accused of something. And the event had nothing to do with what he was being accused of. This is another feature of the New No-Platforming. Anyway, the College (unlike the Labour Party and the Organising Group of the “Stand up for Democracy Event”) stood firm and said that “no-platforming is not… the way to pursue the goals of a free and open academic community (substitute Labour Party community)”. The event went ahead. Hurrah for St. Peter’s College.
Again at Oxford University this week, John McDonnell has been urged by the Labour Society not to share a platform with a woman they call a “known transphobe”, Professor Selina Todd, who writes and teaches about class, inequality, working-class history, feminism and women’s lives. The attackers say “the content of the event is irrelevant to the issue at hand, namely that McDonnell is lending his social and political capital to a person whose views actively harm the trans community”. As one of the twitter comments says: “I thought universities were about debate not censorship”.
So the defamation escalates. First you call someone a ‘transphobe’. Then next time you can call them a ‘known transphobe’. Next, when you’ve called them a known transphobe often enough, you become a ‘notorious transphobe’. All without saying a single word, and just because your attackers say it and say it again and again.
So, individuals are being no-platformed not because of what they actually say, but because of what people think they think- because they are not ideologically pure according to a particular group with influence. And at the same time other people are blackmailed into withdrawing or requiring withdrawal (of the heretic) for fear of guilt by association and worse.
What does this mean then? It means that if we allow them to, those groups with influence control the narrative. They control what people say, and thus begin to control what people think. It means that people walk and think in fear that they might say something that will damage them for the rest of their lives. It means that ideas cannot be debated in public.
These ideas now include:
* Israel as an apartheid state founded on murder and exile
* Women’s rights (has anyone EVER been no-platformed for wanting to debate trans rights?)
* Class analysis (talk about IdPol as much as you like)
It means that people are not allowed to think and have a say unless within the agreed political narrative. It means that democracy dies.
And remember. First they came for the TERFs and then the so-called antisemites. And next they will come for you.
Free Speech and Democracy for All. Solidarity