Defending the indefensible: Censoring campus speakers is a good idea

“Defending the indefensible” is a series of posts where I write arguments for viewpoints that normally make me angry. Instead of “devil’s advocacy” style arguments, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry.

Previous posts in the series: against development, against government action on climate change

Anyway, here’s the best case in favour of “no-platforming” — trying to ensure speakers with opposing viewpoints do not get to make their case in public, that I can write:

It seems that every week, we get another “free speech on campus”-style controversy when a speaker is “no-platformed”. The people who write thinkpieces against no-platforming typically phrase their stance in terms of a defence of free speech. I think free speech is a very important value, and too harsh a set of limitations on what speech is allowed is definitely harmful. I definitely don’t agree with the (really bad) “it’s only a free speech issue if the government punishes you” xkcd viewpoint. However, I think almost everyone on the pro-free speech side would actually agree that some speech has no place in the public sphere, say, at a public lecture on the Berkeley campus.

Free speech for hateful ideas is often defended on the idea that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” or “the best defence against bad speech is more speech” but these seem to me to not be true. They are just cliches, and the reverse cliche of “a lie can travel around the world while the truth is putting on its coat” seems to me much more true. I’m sorry for bringing up the phrase “fake news” but way back before it became a Trumpean punchline, it was a story about how some untrustworthy websites made up news stories out of whole cloth to misinform the public. We’ve seen the “false tweet gets 10,000 likes while retraction and apology gets 2” movie enough times to know that even in today’s information-rich age, true information doesn’t undo the damage of false information.

Let’s think about how that works in the context of public lectures. Consider as a hypothetical someone who is just gonna read from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not historical commentary, not interpretation, just a reading. They’re not calling for violence. They shouldn’t be prosecuted for doing this. But I think it actually wouldn’t be legitimate to invite someone to Berkeley to do this reading. It’s because there is absolutely nothing worthwhile that can come of this, and a lot of harm. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” isn’t a point of view that you need to think about and contend with. It’s actively misinforming people in a way that is likely to lead to evil. Maybe some pro-free-speech people disagree about the Protocols specifically. But I’m pretty confident that almost any free speech advocate can think of an opinion worthless and materially harmful enough that it’s not worth sanctioning with a public university lecture (Larouchism? DPRK propaganda? Phrenology? Pizzagate-exegesis? Alex Jones?).

So I don’t buy that for those who protest “no-platforming” it’s a case of Voltaireian largesse.  They don’t disagree with everything said but “defend to the death the right to say it”. Instead, those who defend speech to some extent agree with the content. That is, they think it would be useful to hear this information, since it has a chance of teaching something useful. Once you realise that these are the contours of the debate, it becomes a lot less categorical, and a lot more case by case. In some cases, no-platforming is a good idea. In other cases (in my opinion, most cases), it’s not. Drawing the boundary around what speech is within the acceptable realm of public discussion is hard work that we have to do as a society, but it seems to me there’s no shortcuts here. “Allow any kind of political speech anywhere” is not a useful deontological rule except insofar as government persecution goes. We need gatekeepers, and we have to discuss what the criteria for that gatekeeping is. There’s no getting around it. Should the campus make space for Milo Yiannopoulos and exclude, say, Jonathan Higgins? Maybe! But I don’t really think it’s outrageous or surprising that some people see it the other way.
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