One of the more recent trends on college campuses across North America is “De-platforming”, in which controversial speakers are barred from speaking through the use of protests. A recent example of this is Ryerson University where, in an ironic twist of fate, a panel titled “Free Speech on Campus” was de-platformed by a Facebook campaign (Soh, 2017). Should controversial speakers be barred by a “hecklers veto”, or should the universities step up and defend freedom of speech? To help answer this question, a hypothetical scenario will be constructed, and then the logic of John Stuart Mill will be applied to it. Finally, the three main arguments for the practice of de-platforming will be examined and refuted.
First, the hypothetical scenario. To fully disprove this idea, one must take in its strongest form. Many controversial speakers are branded as racists, hateful bigots, despite the fact that many have never stated anything explicitly bigoted (Ben Shapiro, a kippah-wearing descendant of holocaust survivors, was branded a “Nazi” (Richardson, 2017) in a surreal twist when he spoke on a college campus). Therefore, to disprove the idea of no-platforming, one must combat it in its strongest form. Imagine a media personality, KKK Grand Dragon Adam Racewarski (the ultimate memetic enemy of pedophile Magic the Gathering judges everywhere), is invited to speak on a college campus. Racewarski is explicitly bigoted, and advocates for the oppression of individuals who do not share their skin color. Naturally, a number of students protest Racewarski’s platform to speak on campus. In this scenario, what is the liberal path to take?
To answer this question, one must examine the writings of John Stuart Mill. Near the beginning of “On Liberty”, Mill gives this quote:
Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not
enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the
prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to
impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and
practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to
fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any
individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to
fashion themselves upon the model of its own (Mill 1859, 5).
Mill’s point here is that opposition to the political norms in society (not in terms of the system itself, but the prevailing political thought) can at times be more difficult than opposing the state, because of the power of the normative societal hegemony. Therefore, not only should free speech apply to those who criticize the positions of the state, but also to those who criticize the prevailing positions of society. In the second chapter of “On Liberty”, Mill expands on this idea further, saying that there should be “liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered” (Mill, 1859). Mill’s point is that no matter how repugnant an individual’s views are to society, they should still be heard. On top of that, Mill’s liberty of speech principle applies to all of humanity:
If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person
were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in
silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified
in silencing mankind (Mill 1859, 13).
Given these principles, it would seem the end result of our little thought experiment is clear: despite Racewarski’s bigoted views, they have the same right as anyone else to express them in a public venue. But there is another dimension to this problem, and it is within this dimension that some of those who support de-platforming find their arguments. This dimension, of course, is Mill’s harm principle.
Mill recognized that some speech must, by its inherent nature, be prohibited. The best example of that is inciting treason; governments have a responsibility to stop individuals from advocating for violence against the state. So what falls into the category of prohibited speech under Mill’s harm principle? The answer can once again be found in “On Liberty”:
…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over
any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent
harm to others (Mill 1859, 7).
Therefore, the only speech that should be suppressed is speech that causes harm to others. But how does one define harm? And here the waters become a little murky. Mill’s conception of ‘harm’ can be construed as “the infringement of the rights of others”. For example, inciting violence against an individual or group causes direct harm to, and directly violates the rights of the individual or group in question. Therefore, speech that incites violence is one area of speech that should be banned under Mill’s thought. However, hate speech (racist, and otherwise bigoted speech) does not fall under this definition. Now, let us return to our example of KKK Grand Dragon Adam Racewarski. Racewarski could spend the entire speech degenerating Native Americans, claiming that they are inferior to other races, and so forth. These sentiments are still protected under Mill’s conception of freedom of speech. However, if Racewarski crossed the line, and began actively encouraging audience members to be violent towards Native Americans, then that speech is no longer protected. This is not to say that society should not condemn racism – it should seek to engage with these individuals so as to show them through dialogue that their ideas are morally reprehensible.
Many students across college campuses today disagree with this principle, evidenced by the large amount of protests and de-platforming that has occurred across the U.S. and Canada. It can be admittedly hard at times to decide when hate speech toes the line, and when it crosses over into inciting violence. But the most disturbing part of this trend of no-platforming is that very few, if any, of the speakers targeted exhibit hate speech, let alone incitement of violence. Instead, they tend to be conservative speakers who disagree with society’s prevailing leftist attitudes. These are not racists, bigots or people of questionable moral character. They simply dare to criticize modern leftism, and in turn reap the consequences.
How do students, then, reconcile being liberal with this suppression of freedom of expression? In my experience, those who defend de-platforming tend to fall into one of three camps. The first group claim that they are not preventing controversial speakers from practicing free speech, merely using their own free speech to deny the speakers a platform on campus (Heinz, 2016). This is ridiculous. These events are planned for and payed for beforehand, at a public venue that is specifically booked for that purpose. To deny the speakers a platform is deny their ability to freely express their ideas. Some choose to focus on the second half of this argument, saying “I’m only exercising my free right to protest”. This is quite irrational, and refuted by Mill. Going back to the harm principle, the only reason to deny someone free speech is if they use to infringe on other’s rights. By using their free speech to infringe on other’s rights (i.e. the right to free speech), de-platformers do not fall under the protected speech category. Pre-emptively using your own free speech to deny someone else’s, because you are concerned they will infringe on your rights may sound at least somewhat understandable, but let us conceptualize this quandary differently. Imagine that you were concerned that an individual would infringe upon your rights by committing violence against you. The equivalent response would be to pre-emptively stab them 30 times in the chest. It is quite clear, therefore, that using your own free speech to deny someone else’s, for whatever reason, goes against the very principles that liberal societies are founded upon.
The second group believe that Mill’s definition of harm is too narrow. Instead of harm equating to the direct infringement of individual rights, the second group re-conceptualises harm as any speech that causes indirect harm, or offense to a particular societal demographic. The logic of this argument fails almost immediately on three levels. First, offense can be caused by practically anything, and what offends one person could provoke a very different reaction from another. Second, it is very difficult to determine if offense is genuine. The risk is that individuals can manufacture offense to remove controversial speakers, with little or no burden of proof on the part of the offended. Third, this argument treats social demographics as homogeneous groups. This is the most dangerous part of this argument, because group rights by necessity subsume individual rights. This argument relies on a Marxist conceptualization of society, and denies individuals within these groups (whether they be the offenders or the offended) their own self-determination by pre-emptively denying them the ability to decide for themselves whether they find the speech offensive.
Despite the disturbing and oppressive nature of the argument of the second group, it has nothing on the third group. The third camp argue that certain speech should be oppressed on the basis that “speech is equivalent to action”. The horrific nature of this argument cannot be understated. If speech is equivalent to action, then much of our culture and society by necessity must be censored. Comedy, much of political critique and the entire rap music genre would be outright banned under this principle. The disassociation of speech from action is a right that was fought over for a hundred years in Europe during the Reformation. When Martin Luther penned his Ninety-Five Theses condemning the Catholic Church, it was treated as a literal attack on God. It took countless deaths and years of warfare before the difference between words and deeds was recognized.
Of course, the students that propose these reasons for de-platforming are disingenuous by the very dint of their own arguments. They are incapable of applying these principles fairly across the board, or else the minority of conservatives students on campus would simply de-platform mainstream speakers in response. This unsurprising, however, given the doublethink that is endemic to the modern left. It is unfortunately quite easy to see how radical leftist college students are capable of reconciling their suppression of free speech with their so-called liberal views.
When viewed through this lens, the practice of de-platforming becomes more sinister. Far from being an overzealous and misguided attempt to combat harm, de-platforming actually becomes a tool of political suppression. It becomes the very thing that Mill warned against in the first chapter of “On Liberty”:
Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong
mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it
ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than
many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by
such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating
much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself (Mill 1859, 5).
And make no mistake, de-platforming is political oppression. Whether its adherents realize it is such is another matter entirely. There are two possible scenarios: either they are misguided and incapable of critically examining their own views, or else they fully understand the consequences of their actions and choose to act anyway. Either option does not leave much hope for university students who seek to listen to a wide range of views and perspectives on campus.
Regardless, to return to the original scenario, the liberal path is to allow KKK Grand Dragon Adam Racewarski to speak, so long as they do not directly advocate for violence. John Stuart Mill makes it abundantly clear in “On Liberty” that views that might otherwise be considered abhorrent should not be supressed. Given that very few, if any of the speakers that are de-platformed express explicitly racist views, it is quite clear that that colleges no longer adhere to liberal principles regarding free speech. College should be the place where students can experience a variety of different views and perspectives. Instead, it is becoming a place of increasing ideological hegemony.
Faye, Sean. 2016. If you don’t like no-platforming, maybe it’s you who is the special snowflake. The Independent. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/if-you-dont-like-no-platforming-maybe-its-you-whos-the-special-snowflake-a6884026.html
Heinz, Eric. 2016. Ten Arguments for and against ‘no platforming’. The Free Speech Debate. Retrieved from: http://freespeechdebate.com/discuss/ten-arguments-for-and-against-no-platforming/
Mill, John Stuart. 1859. On Liberty. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Richardson, Valerie. 2017. Protests, arrests fail to stop Ben Shapiro speaking at Berkeley campus. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/sep/15/ben-shapiro-berkeley-speech-goes-ahead-despite-ant/
Soh, Deborah. 2017. The left is alienating its allies by shutting down free speech. CBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/ryerson-free-speech-1.4259360