February 9, 2017

The illiberal logic of anti-Milo protestors

The illiberal logic of anti-Milo protestors

Freedom to platform somebody is just as key to an equitable liberty of speech as the freedom to no-platform them, argues Henry Hill.

Free speech is still, nominally at least, one of the supreme liberal virtues. So opponents of it have to find careful ways to describe what they’re doing when they try to shut someone down.

A popular choice is ‘no platforming’, which I first encountered at university. The logic behind it is simple and unobjectionable: somebody may have a right to speak, but nobody has an obligation to provide them with a platform from which to speak.

This is quite correct. Freedom of association is another important liberal principle, and must logically encompass the right to freedom of disassociation too. You’re not obliged to assist somebody in their exercise of free speech.

But ‘no platforming’ somebody too often means something else entirely: trying to prevent a speaker from using a platform willingly provided by somebody else, often through intimidation.

This is well-illustrated by this piece in the International Business Times from James Bloodworth, a former editor of Left Foot Forward, about the recent riots at the University of Berkeley. In it, he labours the distinction between Milo Yiannopoulos’ right to speak (“which no one is denying”) and his “right to a platform”.

Even if we don’t share JS Mill’s view on the evil of censorship to all involved, Bloodworth’s case for why the use of riots to get Yiannopoulos’ speech cancelled doesn’t equate to an imposition on freedom of speech falls badly short.

Set aside that he’s justifying the violent restriction of freedom by the protesters in order to stave off the violent restriction of their freedom by a hypothetical Yiannopoulosite government and consider the counter-case so well laid out in this piece by Peter Beinart in the Atlantic.

He makes the essential point that distinguishes the Berkeley example from the standard, unobjectionable model of no-platforming: the platform in question was not the sole property of the students who objected.

Rather, according to university policy any student society could rent out student union facilities on equal terms. The platform on which Yiannopoulos was speaking was that of Berkeley College Republicans, not that of the university.

This isn’t complicated: denying somebody the use of your platform is not an attack on free speech. Trying to shut down somebody else’s platform is.

If you believe that Berkeley should have rules which bar its students from offering a platform to objectionable speakers, that’s a case that can be honestly made. But such a case is about justifying an attack on freedom of speech, not denying one.

Try to follow its illiberal logic: who decides what qualifies as objectionable? Does one bar every speaker to whom anyone objects? More likely you end up with the authorities making value judgements about whose feelings justify censorship and whose don’t.

Bloodworth explicitly concedes this by arguing that “some things are mutually exclusive”, by which he means that Yiannopoulos’ freedom to speak is incompatible with the protesters’ right to freedom from his speech. Or as he puts it:

“Just as my ‘freedom’ to buy up all the houses along my street may impede your right to find somewhere affordable to live, so granting members of the ‘alt-right’ a platform to whip up hatred can impinge on the freedom of those on the receiving end of it.”

It’s fitting that Bloodworth puts an actual freedom in scare quotes whilst contrasting it with something that isn’t a freedom as much as an entitlement. It’s of a piece with his broader reasoning: he squares the conflict between the Berkeley protests and liberal values by basically putting scare quotes around ‘freedom of speech’.

Not only does this logic create a hierarchy of ‘freedoms’ which those in power must choose between, but it’s difficult to see why it should confine itself to a college campus. If Yiannopoulos’ mere words can do violence to those who hear them, why shouldn’t those so affected try to tear up all his platforms? Nobody would be infringing on his right to free speech, of course – just making sure nobody could listen to him.

Yiannopoulos’ is not the only victim of his being censored: so too are the students who invited him to speak and, following Mill, everybody who might have had the opportunity to hear and consider his argument.

The freedom to platform somebody is just as fundamental to an equitable liberty of speech as the freedom to no-platform them. It is mendacious to pretend you’re not abrogating somebody’s freedom of speech if you set mobs on their venue and their audience.

It’s especially witless to do so in the name of “anti-Fascism”. One of the key features of fascistic behaviour is when nice, middle-class people start justifying political violence (usually perpetrated by others) in defence of their ascendant-but-challenged values. That cocktail of the mob and the social power of respectable opinion is more poisonous to liberalism than all of Yiannopoulos’ speeches, because it corrupts the liberals themselves.

Liberalism is hard precisely because you don’t get to change the rules of the game just because you think you’re right. Those who purport to be defending liberal values ought to refresh themselves on what those are.

4.92 avg. rating (97% score) - 13 votes
Henry Hill
Henry Hill

Henry Hill is a freelance journalist. He is assistant editor of ConservativeHome and also works as a communications officer for a Tory MP, as well as a commentator for BBC radio and television. He tweets at @hch_hill.

  • Fubar2

    The only equality it promotes is amongst everyone but itself. Some animals are more equal than others, as the old saying goes. And, all it is done in the name of is destroying the old establishment, leveraging the human condition of people who have chips on their shoulders to achieve their own political aims – to destroy the old establishment and to make themselves the new establishment.

    Fairness and equality never came into it and never will do.

  • Fubar2

    “Liberalism is hard precisely because you don’t get to change the rules of the game just because you think you’re right”

    No kidding.

    Someone ought to tell them that. Seems like its proving to be a hard pill for them to swallow.

  • the baracus

    If Islam is the religion of peace, then why are not Islamic fanatics extremely peaceful?

  • PJM

    The left are now the self appointed censors in society. They will decide what opinions can and cannot be heard. Anything which offends their very delicate sensibilities must be silenced. However, considering who some of their heroes are ie: Fidel Castro, Hamas – perhaps their sensibilities are not so delicate after all. Milo despite his shock jock persona is very bright and articulate and there appears to be no one on the left smart enough to take him on one to one unsurprisingly.

  • UKSteve

    Throwing gays of building rooves is fine, it seems.

    But Donald Trump? Outrageous!

  • rbw152

    ‘Liberal’. The clue is in the word.

    Libertarians have to call themselves that to distinguish them from the clearly illiberal liberals these days.

    ‘Free speech’. The clue is in the phrase.

    If students don’t want to hear a speaker speak they should just not turn up. They do not have the right to police other people’s opinions. ‘No platforming’ is just that. They’re worried about what those who listen to the speaker will end up thinking or doing as a result of their opinions after hearing what the speaker says. But it’s not up to them to concern themselves with that, it’s up to the university.

  • ratcatcher11

    They are snowflakes, they don’t live in the real world.

  • ratcatcher11

    Well more fool them for bending their knee towards leftist cowards who can only mouth the tired slogans put out by their grandfathers.

  • ratcatcher11

    No platforming is a concept invented by the Nazi fascists and Stalinists Russia as well as ISIS and the Iranian Mullahs. It all means the same, censoring by violence any opinion with which you disagree. I have seen it most of my life, usually in the Ivory towers that like to profess their freedom of speech epithet.

  • Paul Williams

    I want to know when the Left sold its heart, head, and very soul to the appeasement of Islam. They’ve even turned their backs on the once precious LGBT community if it conflicts with Islam. It’s the greatest irony of the 21st century. A political and philosophical movement utterly bent on promoting ‘equality’ so long as that ‘equality’ does not impede the greatest spreader of inequality and prejudice, Islam. Go figure.

  • David323

    I’m afraid the IQ of these anti-democracy, anti Milo rioters must be rather low – either that or they have no self awareness. They do not seem to realise that their comments and messages are all contradictory, hypocritical and downright extreme.

    Poor, stupid, indoctrinated snowflakes. No one should listen to these people as they are not well informed. However, the dumbed down BBC and SKY news seem to think differently. Dangerous times when the MSM is against the people and trying to subvert democracy.

  • Rzzr

    One of the reason the liberal left hate Milo so much is the fact that he is gay, Jewish and has a black boyfriend. They feel he should be on their side, not giving a voice to the alt right. They also hate the fact they can’t accuse him of being racist etc. He also happens to be a good speaker. These things put together wind up the left into a frenzy!

  • Speedy

    Unlike the centre-right, who have been castrated, and cringe in fear before leftist bullying and intimidation. The alt-right seem to be standing up the the thugs of the left.
    Good for them!

  • Johnnydub

    My perception is that the alt-right refuses top be cowed by the left when they scream racist – in fact their default response seems to be extravagant exaggeration – hence the ludicrous racist memes they come up with.

    “If we’re going to be called racist then hell lets be racist” Its the reaction of 16 year olds with little common sense, which also sums up the alt right.

    What they’re not are stormtrooper nazi’s, but you know that accusation has jumped the shark when Laurie Penny is accused of being a Nazi when she recently did an interview with Milo.

  • Rob

    Henry Hill has just perpetrated a huge (indeed, bigly) violent aggression towards me. He (sorry if I’ve mis-gendered you) wrote stuff that I don’t wholly agree with. Next stop on this road is surely crystal night and a trip to Poland in rather well-cut uniforms?

  • geo

    just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder … so goes “alt-right” as an epithet – nothing more than another right on term the liberal left uses to shut down any debate they dont like. just like fascist, sexist, islamophobe, racist and all the other lovely terms the “nice” people use to justify their hate while ignoring real hatred and justification of violence in their own ranks.

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