Banning offensive speakers won’t advance any crucial debates and it’s also not winning

Students protest outside the Durham Union Society against Godfrey Bloom
Students protest outside the Durham Union Society in 2014 against the appearance of Godfrey Bloom

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Locally and nationally, the ‘No-Platform Policy’ has become a part of university life. It is simply a list of individuals or groups who are simply not allowed to speak, debate or contribute to discussions in student groups or Unions.

The NUS currently list five organisations as ‘bad guys’. It is worth noting that this includes fundamental Islamic groups and fundamental Islamophobic groups. The policy is not directed in one specific direction although it is often the (Islamo, xeno, homo, trans)–phobic groups who are told they cannot speak. This mainly being because they are the most often invited.

Durham, in particular the Durham Union Society (DUS), has come up against the no-platform mindset in the past. In 2010, the Students’ Union disaffiliated from NUS over tensions surrounding the appearance of BNP members at the DUS. In May last year, campaigners stood on Palace Green demanding platform be denied to UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom, and most recently DUS has removed an invitation from former EDL leader to speak.

On the national stage, Julie Bindel and George Galloway have been condemned by the NUS for transphobia and ‘rape apology’ respectively. Recent spotlight is being cast on feminist figure Germaine Greer following her transphobic remarks on BBC’s Question Time.

I do understand the motivation behind banning these people; the desire to create safe spaces, the concern of spreading undesirable views, the fear of giving them ‘air to breathe’. However, I don’t agree.

I do understand the motivation behind banning these people. However, I don’t agree.

I don’t think that it is naïve to consider the student body of a UK top five university capable of enough free thought to identify an unfounded, hateful point of view. If that is your concern, it has little to stand on. It’s frankly preposterous to suggest that we would all become right wing extremists after spending twenty minutes in the company of Nick Griffin. Yet the BNP are on the list.

What about them being offensive? This is still not sufficient reason to deny someone the right to speak. There is a difference between targeting those you are debating with, and making comments which are offensive by function of stupid views. The former is not okay because it is rude; holding offensive views, however, simply shows that you are out of touch – this echoes my previous point.

Often requoted is the adage “offence is taken not given” (I saw it in a tweet from Ricky Gervais). It’s a really cheesy line but it is true. Being offended is not a right to censor the other person; as put by Stephen Fry, it is “nothing more […] than a whine”.

I find bananas offensive. I don’t like the colour, I don’t like the smell. The taste is too bland, the texture too lumpy. I don’t like how the skin goes brown when you leave it on the lid of the bin. I have, however, taken steps to avoid bananas. I don’t buy them, I don’t eat them, and… actually, that’s it.

I’m not saying that it’s the same – it is clearly not – but in the same way, I would never force you to have tea with the membership of Al-Muhajiroun (another from the list).

It is really important that we are able to debate with all sorts of figures. At the DUS Bloom protest, one sign read “no debate necessary, women’s rights now”. How wrong that is. Until everyone accepts that the second part is correct, the first part is not. We need the debate, not in order to find out whether women should be allowed to vote or drive, but in order to expose the flaw in anyone thinking that they should not.

It is also crucial that we learn that some of these people do actually exist. Wrapping us in intellectual cotton wool is not going to make the bad people go away. One day, however, the cotton wool will. We need to be ready; that’s what University is supposed to be for.

If these people’s views are as bad as they say, they can only make fools of themselves. They will lose the debate, for what it’s worth. We might even get a chance to laugh at them.

NUS stand over us with a list of undesirables, like The Mikado’s Ko-Ko, terrified of giving ‘platform’ to any of them. The fear is that this platform will turn out to be a wooden staging like in days of yore, a soapbox, or something akin to a hustings. They seem to have forgotten that for some ideas it may just be another platform: the gallows.

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