Universities are institutions dedicated to academia, intellectual enlightenment and cutting-edge research. Such goals can only be achieved in a climate of free discourse, debate and disagreement. However, as of late, it has become clear that there is a growing prevalence of intolerance on university campuses, with student bodies campaigning against academics such as Noah Carl, as well as prominent public figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos. This has resulted in University faculties cancelling talks and fellowships, and promoting a policy of 'no platforming'; whereby individuals holding views deemed offensive or unacceptable are prevented from contributing to a public debate. The case for free speech has been made time and time again, but in the current climate, we would do well to reiterate such arguments in order to prevent the degeneration of our higher education system, which would be to the detriment of both students and society at large.
I am no fan of Milo; agent provocateur and internet antagonist that he is. His views on several issues are misplaced, and personal attacks on individuals such as Leslie Jones are cruel and unnecessary. Yet hypothetically speaking, even if his views were supported by no one other than himself, would we be justified in silencing such views? Shutting down ideas cannot be justified simply by reference to their complete lack of support. To think otherwise is to assume our own infallibility. To silence an argument is to pre-suppose its failings. Only the airing of such views, and their rigorous interrogation would truly discredit them. Vocalising such views would ensure that those opposed are forced to reiterate and refine their arguments against; arguments that wouldn’t be made if such views were simply silenced.
With reference to the current ‘no-platforming’ that is currently taking hold of university campuses, it is clear that this basic principle is being forgotten. It can certainly be shocking to hear radical, extreme views we haven’t been subject to before - but this is simply all the more reason to hear them. Not least because to make a rational, well-thought-out decision on important issues we have to hear all sides of the argument.
University can be one of the most informative times for individuals, and thus when students are formulating their views on a range of issues, across a wealth of disciplines, it is imperative they have the tools with which to do so. Any argument to the contrary resting on the idea that students should be protected is misplaced; university should widen horizons not narrow them. Universities should actively be inviting academics and intellects who possess radical views to discuss them. They should be at the forefront of questioning the boundaries of the Overton window. This may result in issues that are lacking in evidence or sound arguments being publicly undermined – e.g. racism – yet wouldn’t this be a refreshing change? Sunlight is the best disinfectant. From seeing speakers who possess these views spout uncontested drivel on the internet with no accountability, to challenging them critically on a public platform. Inviting such speakers would allow reason to hold them to account and undermine any legitimacy their authors claim to possess. Such evidently misconceived arguments will fall prey to sound logic and evidence in opposition, yet this would not be possible when such arguments, speakers or ideas are not given a platform with which they can be interrogated on.
A popular argument against letting prominent academics or personalities speak is that giving them a platform would legitimise their views, with negative consequences. Simply letting them speak – so the argument goes - with no ability to retort, rebut or question their argument provides a mechanism with which to spread unsound arguments and ideas. I have a degree of sympathy for this argument – yet there is an obvious solution. Rather than, or alongside, universities providing a platform from which to simply give a speech, universities should require speakers to partake in genuine discourse alongside other academics, personalities or students who possess a wide variety of views on the issue being discussed. The likely outcome is a desired one; people developing ideas, promoting well-reasoned thought while simultaneously questioning hidden assumptions and logical fallacies of faulty arguments, allowing students to hone their positions on interesting issues.
If students who are at the heart of this endemic backlash against free speech cannot get behind this policy, we should question why? Are they not willing to have their views questioned, probed and tested? Surely they wouldn’t want to give credence to that accusation and would vehemently deny it, ensuring they are held to the same standards as those they oppose. They should relish the opportunity to highlight the erroneous views of speakers they disagree with. Or so we hope. To do otherwise is to admit the weakness of their position. Inviting a plethora of speakers, with diametrically opposing views, in the format laid out above, would allow contentious issues to be discussed at length and examined rigorously.
This does admittedly only serve to eradicate de jure ‘no platforming’, and would do little to eradicate de facto ‘no platforming’ which results from the intimidation and social stigmatisation that proponents of radical views from all sides of the political spectrum are subject to (think Pankhurst, King and countless others). However, big changes all need to start somewhere. Ending ‘no-platforming’ would be that start. A penchant for ignorance over knowledge shouldn’t be defended, least of all by institutions dedicated to the pursuit of such knowledge.