Difference of opinion

Last weekend, full of excitement (and quite a lot of penny sweets, I’ll be honest), I spent an evening in Hammersmith attending a conversation between Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Matt Dillahunty with the rather wonderful title, ‘A Celebration of Science and Reason’. Dawkins, I suspect, will be the name most familiar to many; Sam Harris is an author, philosopher and neuroscientist; and Matt Dillahunty a brilliant debater who hosts the online TV show, The Atheist Experience run out of Austin, Texas. There was no particular theme to the evening: Matt Dillahunty led a general and wide-ranging discussion about science, atheism, argument construction, politically-sensitive topics and how to treat them in debate, the impact of the internet… and there was then an opportunity to ask questions. And one topic which was raised, expounded upon briefly by Richard Dawkins, but alas not further unpicked, was that of de-platforming speakers. It’s a thorny topic and I’m not proposing to offer any solutions here. But in the spirit of good debating, and inspired by their example, here are a few thoughts.

What causes a speaker to be de-platformed? Well, it may sound obvious, but in the first place, they have to be invited. You can’t de-platform someone who hasn’t been, as it were, given permission to platform. So at some point, someone thought they were a good idea to invite. (This almost certainly won’t apply, for example, to Katie Hopkins, because why on earth would anyone invite her in the first place? Though see here for some superb observations on her planned schools tour.)

Then, having been invited, the speaker has to do something that means there are objections to their being allowed to open their mouths in public. This could take a whole plethora of forms. They might have made a hateful or malicious statement. They might hold a view which others believe to be abhorrent. They could have done something – recently or less recently – that is deemed sufficiently unpleasant or offensive that they are subsequently considered unworthy of being given the right to speak.

Quick reminder: someone, at some point, thought that they should have a right to speak. More on that in a moment.

Man in a clown costume dancing around an audience

This is where it gets tricky. If someone holds a position, or does something, that is unpleasant but not illegal, then should they be silenced as a result of that? And who should have the ultimate say-so over whether they should be told that they cannot speak, if they have been invited? If someone has new and exciting ideas to discuss about astrophysics but eats kittens, should we de-platform them? If they write beautiful novels but believe Islam to be a deeply flawed and dangerous religion? If they espouse white supremacist rhetoric but make significant donations to animal charities and have been asked to talk about that?

So let’s go back to the invitation. A great many of the cases I’ve read about are to do with university speeches, and in this instance the most likely organisers are the university itself (a faculty, department, etc.) or an organisation within the university. In the second instance, it’s quite possible that a speaker is being invited in order to push a certain opinion, relevant to the society. This may or not be a big society, a well-supported society, a well-liked society or indeed a society that anyone bothers attending. If they invite a speaker with vile opinions, assuming that de-platforming were not an issue, I would predict any of the following outcomes:

  • People don’t turn up to listen
  • There’s an actual boycott of the event and the organisation
  • People do turn up to listen, dislike what they hear, and say so; reasoned debate presents a balanced argument even if it fails to persuade the speaker
  • People do turn up to listen and end up tweet-shouting (I’ll explain this in a minute)
  • People do turn up to listen, like what they hear, and the group continues to invite similar speakers until it’s clear that the group itself is a threat to other students and staff members and the university can legitimately shut it down

If the university has booked a controversial speaker for a lecture, then the university should also be able to justify why, from an educational perspective, it has invited them in the first place. If it doesn’t have one, it’s a waste of university resources. If it does, it should be able to explain itself. If the figure is known to be controversial, a sensible lecturer would discuss this with students first in able to manage debate and difficulty on the day. If the students really object, they can boycott the session or complain that they are dissatisfied with the reasoning the lecturer has presented.

The problem often seems to be tweet-shouting. This doesn’t necessarily only happen on Twitter – what I mean by it, really, is anyone who shouts angry, retaliatory statements without being able to logically argue why the speaker is wrong. Keeping your cool around someone you find awful, and whose opinions you loathe, is very difficult. Arguing them into a corner, if you can do it, is immensely satisfying. Never giving them the chance to speak at all just gives them a reason to tweet-shout themselves about how silly everyone’s being and how afraid they are of ‘the truth’ (whatever they might define as such).

What’s interesting, too, is that the press seems to give quite a bit of space to the people who spout the most astonishing bigoted garbage, because if none of us can quite believe anyone’s said that out loud, we quite enjoy marvelling at it with a sort of abstract horror. Put in a room in front of us, though, once we’re over our initial shock, these people are often quite easy to knock down. I appreciate that we live in a country where an element of valid political discussion is for large numbers of people in Westminster to make a sort of shouty grumbling noise to indicate that they do or don’t agree; but the politicians try, even with sore throats, P45s and tumbling magnetic letters, to craft their speeches in order to persuade. So do other speakers, however much we might enjoy or loathe their views. If you don’t think tactical rhetoric works, speak to an advertising agency and they’ll tell you how wrong you are. Silver-tongued orators get us on board; monosyllabic shouty people can only be monosyllabic and shouty for so long (and it’s usually miles before a 45-minute lecture slot runs out) before it’s clear that that’s all they are.

As I said, I don’t intend to offer solutions here because there are complicated political, personal, emotional, social strands at work here and I’d be interested to hear the views of others. But all in all, it is conversations that change minds, strengthen good arguments, and reveal the weakness and stupidity of bad ones. Not silence.

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