The illiberal logic of anti-Milo protestors

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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.

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  • 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.
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